A chance to leave mass incarceration behind

Opinion: We have to work with conviction towards a future where the shadow of the prison no longer distorts and corrupts life chances of our people, writes the University of Auckland's Tracey McIntosh.

The decision to not build a mega-prison at Waikeria as proposed can be seen as an act of political courage. It demonstrates a determination to rethink and rework our Criminal Justice System which will require a whole-of-society approach with significant challenges.

The potential to create a world-leading system that has an emphasis on decarceration rather than incarceration, that brings greater levels of community safety, supports communities and helps whānau to flourish, is extraordinary.

And the fact is, decarceration is critical for Māori.

The mass incarceration we have in New Zealand is largely Māori incarceration. This is devastating for Māori whanau, communities and the broader nation. The inter-generational reach of the prison is long and, as I have noted elsewhere, colonises our future. There is good reason and evidence to doubt the effectiveness of incarceration as a means of responding to complex social problems.

We need to be clear that our problems would not be addressed if we closed Waikeria, and indeed all prisons, tomorrow and did nothing more.

Decarceration cannot be conceptualised solely as just opening the prison doors or putting forward alternatives to prison that just replicate our current prison mentality and shift it to outside of the wire. We do not want to see an expansion of alternatives that are closely related to incarceration, as this is confinement by other means and the opportunities to fully integrate, participate, heal and contribute will be severely limited.

Māori incarceration will need to be addressed by ceding penal power and adequate resourcing to iwi and community. This ceding of power and move away from current crown contractual relationships is an expression of tino rangatiratanga, and allows iwi to have a far greater stake and accountability in this sector. It would open a space for transformational iwi politics and strengthening of Crown relationships by involving very different people, groups and communities to address the complex and often messy issues that we face.

We need to be clear that our problems would not be addressed if we closed Waikeria, and indeed all prisons, tomorrow and did nothing more.

Professor Tracey McIntosh

It would also remove the reliance on correctional solutions to social problems and create truly innovative evidence based, culturally informed spaces to address social harm. US academic Allegra McCloud’s focus on preventive justice and Canadian legal reformer Ruth Morris’s transformative justice demonstrates that there are ways we can conceptually imagine community safety and justice security differently to present thinking. These are just two conceptual positions and the ability to think beyond the prison will allow the development of a range of models suited to our situation. Drawing on the expertise of those who have experiential knowledge of incarceration will be critical.

The well-being of all communities can be enhanced by enabling greater levels of social solidarity, empowering people in their personal and community lives, enhancing social infrastructure and establishing opportunities for dignified work and alternative livelihoods.

We should not be restricted by thinking about community safety solely organised around criminal law enforcement, confinement, surveillance and retributive punishment.

However, achieving the ideal of decarceration will not be a short-term exercise. It requires a shared social consciousness and will, including political will, for change. And while Corrections sits at the end of the system, much of the work will need to be done at the beginning of the system to disrupt the drivers that have led to such a devastating incarceration rate in a country of considerable abundance.

While we must act now to effect generational change in the short and mid-term, the pressures on Corrections will be significant. The large Corrections workforce will need to be well-supported to help facilitate the move toward decarceration rather than incarceration. One of the biggest changes in Corrections over the last decade is a move away from training people to lock people up to training them to unlock people. I have witnessed the difficulties associated with over-crowding from a prison and staff perspective and do not wish to minimise the nature of the challenges.

However, the need to address this is urgent, but it must also be recognised that creating a world where prisons are a thing of the past, and where we have a greater sense of community safety, won’t happen overnight.

For me, as Māori, one of our greatest strengths is our commitment to mokopunatanga: a recognition that our focus must be on the lives of our grandchildren and their grandchildren. We have to work with conviction towards a future where the shadow of the prison no longer distorts and corrupts life chances of our people today and the mokopunatanga of the generations ahead.

Professor Tracey McIntosh is co-head of school at Te Wānanga o Waipapa, Māori Studies and Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom, A chance to leave mass incarceration behind published on 25 May 2018.