I expect to disagree with many of the policies put forward by the Minister of Corrections but the use of shipping containers to house prisoners is not one of them. An eye-blink television interview with Peter Williams (well known lawyer concerned with human rights) and Kim Workman (Spokesman for Rethinking Crime and Punishment) was typical of the thoughtless debate on this issue. Workman thought the containers were inhumane. He did not provide adequate reasoning but I’m sure very little of what he said was actually aired. Williams, an admirable advocate for the underdog, tends to froth at the mouth on the subject of imprisonment and he did not disappoint on this occasion.
My response to the use of containers to imprison convicted criminals was to ask myself the following questions: Are the containers secure? Will they mop up overcrowding? By prison standards of accommodation, are these containers humane? The answer is yes in all cases. Those who complain about this innovation probably complained about prefabricated school rooms until they became the commonplace solution for dealing with a shortage of class-room accommodation.
I am more concerned with the policy of ‘doubling up.’ Enforced sharing of cells exposes weak prisoners to bullying and abusive cell-mates behind locked doors. I can see a time coming when this practice is exposed for the same see-no-evil cruelty that Catholic Church institutions were guilty of. Who will then be held to account?
But by now most New Zealanders will have been temporarily relieved, if somewhat confused, to discover that we no longer have prisons. We have ‘correctional facilities,’a long-winded Orwellian-American term for prison.
If we assume ‘correction’ means to change the conduct and beliefs of prisoners rather than merely incarcerating them, the term has some validity. At least in theory. And it must be acknowledged that some prisoners do apparently respond to efforts to rehabilitate them. I say ‘apparently’ because we don’t know what motivated the successful ones to turn the corner. But sadly, a commitment to change is not a priority for most offenders. A moment’s thought about the number of community-based sentences most prison inmates have experienced before finally being sent to prison hints at the reason why.
Most career criminals and serious offenders from con-men to rapists are immune to all known treatment. Apart from the opportunity to learn to read and write, I have doubts about the value of most rehabilitation courses in prison. But the opposite view is currently holy writ and beyond the reach of intelligent debate.
That does not mean we forget about rehabilitation or do a Peter Williams rant on the uselessness of prisons. We could allocate valuable rehabilitation resources more sensibly by targeting those who are committed to change. We could transfer rehabilitation resources to the community as conditions of parole. And we could stop feeling sorry for those who don’t want to change. After all, no matter what the experts say, most sensible people see prisons primarily as a means of locking criminals away from opportunities to offend. And also as justified punishment.