Professor Tracey McIntosh - Imagining a world without prisons

What type of society would we need to have that would enable us to contemplate a society without prisons?


Our thanks to Tracey for taking the time to answer the following questions asked by our viewers that she didn't have time to address during the webinar.

Is there any sign in NZ of political interest in these ideas? Are there influential people within the justice system who understand and are working towards these ideas of reform and improvement?

We have seen a significant increase in political interest in prison reform. The present government has even set an objective of reducing the prison population by 30% in 15 years and the previous government sought to reduce the recidivism rate. Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora – The Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group was formed  in 2018 to advise the government on a platform for reform. As a member of that group we held hui throughout the country asking, among other things, where change was needed and sought community solutions. Overwhelming, what we found was that whether people have been harmed or had been caught up in the system they believed that the system failed. A victims’ study found that 83% of people who had been victims of crime believed the Criminal Justice System was unsafe. Thoses who had experienced prison or people who supported those who were in prison spoke of the way, overall, prison increased harm, was unable to address the drivers of harm and opportunities to make lasting change were lost. The two reports that came out of this work were:

The Māori Justice Hui produced the report Inaia Tonu Nei

A number or Victim Survey and recommendations were released including Te Tangi o te Manawanui: Recommendations for Reform

Corrections released its Māori Strategy Hōkai Rangi

There is a need to ensure that recommendations are taken up and momentum is not lost. It will require both political courage and strong collective action and community support.

Are Māori receiving the right treatment or rehabilitation whilst serving time?

It is important to note that many people do not get access to programmes while in prison. While there are programmes within prison that are more effective than others it would be difficult to argue that the needs of Māori are met. The health needs, including the mental health needs are significant and while there are many good people working within the system there is not adequate  capacity, including cultural capacity, within the system. The implementation of Hokai Rangi could make a difference in the lives of those who are incarcerated and their whānau and it is important that the implementation strategy is progressed. However, evidence suggests  that programmes outside of the wire are most effective. The need to create the conditions of a just society that recognises the value of all our children, that creates meaningful life-course opportunities to fully participate and flourish as Māori are likely to be the most important initiatives for the future.

Kia ora Tracey and thank you for your wonderful lecture. It's been great to hear your voice and powerful words again. There's a lot to think about. I would like to ask whether you see deincarceration as essentially a whole-society change that no longer abandons people and casts some as worthless? In a way this isn't about prisons as a place, but the action of incarerating people throughout their lives, whether they are confined in a specific 'prison' or not.

Decarceration strategies that reduce social harm and support greater levels of accountability and collective security requires a whole of society change. At its best it would be less about the prison and more about ensuring that the potential of all are recognised and that the health and wellbeing of communities is where investment is concentrated. The systemic frustration of aspirations is a characteristic of the lives of too many and where inequality becomes embedded. My work has demonstrated that there are many forms of confinement in society that limit life chances and create the conditions for social harm. People are confined by poverty, by everyday racism, marginalisation and social institutions and practices that diminish and harm.

Kia ora Tracey, as an educator your comments on the school to prison pipeline resonated. What are you aware of that is being done in Aotearoa to address this in a cohesive way?

In the time that I have been volunteering in the prison I have encountered many hundred of young people who have been excluded from the compulsory education system by the time they are 13 and in many cases much younger. The fact that this is such a significant characteristic of the lives of people who are incarcerated means that  it deserves focused and sustained attention. The fact that school exclusions impact on Māori and Pacific children disproportionately is also concerning. The (exclusion from) school to prison pipeline is a part of our criminal justice system. While there are initiatives seeking to address this there is no comprehensive national strategy that recognises the harm of denying children an education. Exclusion from school not only disrupts an education but it removes other protective factors such as oversight of the wellbeing of children, sporting and extracurricular activities, diverse social interaction and the ability to be a part of and participate in a broad community.

Another devastating pipeline effect is the state care to prison pipeline. Again the number of people who have been in state care as children are disproportionately represented in prison. The need to treat all children as valuable rather than to accept them as vulnerable is critical.

Have you any ideas about how to make a difference around media reporting?  We do have quite a biased media in NZ, who take an adversarial approach to whatever is happening in order to attract public attention and create sales.  It’s hard to feel optimistic that they would take a considered, responsible approach to this important issue.

The media has a significant role in shaping the way we think about crime, social harm and punishment. While they cannot tell us how to think they can present and select news in ways that, often by omission, influence the way we understand and respond to social harm. Finland was a country that, as a part of their decarceration strategies,  sought to put in media guidelines on crime reporting, including undertakings not to sensationalise crime.

The rights of victims are often disregarded in crime reporting and  this often  considerably amplifies harm. In New Zealand there has been some work recently from journalists themselves on crime reporting guidelines and it will be interesting to see both the nature of the guidelines and the implementaion of them.

About the webinar

A dismissal of those who are incarcerated as troubled and irredeemable people does not allow us to fully understand the real issues behind imprisonment and to effectively respond in ways that support greater collective security. The global over-representation of Indigenous peoples in prisons speaks to lives of restriction and constraint both inside and outside of the wire.  

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the developed world and in New Zealand, mass incarceration is Māori incarceration. This draws strongly on the experience and expertise of incarcerated people and will begin a discussion on what strategies we need to support decarceration strategies.

Speaker's bio

Tracey McIntosh (Tūhoe) is a Professor of Indigenous Studies and Co-Head of Te Wānanga o Waipapa (School of Māori Studies and Pacific Studies) at the University of Auckland. She is the former Co-Director of Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence. Her recent research focuses on incarceration (particularly of Māori and Indigenous peoples) and issues pertaining to poverty, inequality and social justice.  

In 2018-2019 she was a member of both the Welfare Expert Advisory Group and Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora –  Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group. She is currently a member of the Criminal Cases Review Commission’s establishment advisory group. She is also Chief Science Advisor for the Ministry of Social Development. She is the Co-Editor of AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples.

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