Sunday, January 24, 2010

An excuse to break out another Bellmer portrait

Custodial policy in New Zealand has become a political football. No, wait, wrong game... the two main parties have been vying to see who can promise the longer sentences,* both playing in the same direction, so it's more like a political pelota-ball. If only we could switch to political curling stones. But I digress.

The factors driving our culture of incarceration include the usual factors, like newspapers pumping up the moral panic whenever an ex-convict re-offends, but we also have the Sensible Sentencing Trust. This is essentially one guy who churns out regular press releases about the Rights of Victims and Getting Tough on Crime... the "Sensible Sentencing" he demands turns out to translate as longer sentences whenever the victim of crime was European-ancestry, but shorter sentences if the white-skinned party was the perpetrator and the guy he killed was the dark-skinned one. McVicar's press releases receive the kind of coverage from the news media that you'd expect for a organisation of thousands, because repeating press releases is what NZ news media are good at.
So last week the Gubblement promised a new wave of recruitment for the prison population, in the form of a "Three Strikes and You're Out" law that will strip judges and juries of the flexibility to choose an appropriate sentence for certain charges. Excuse me, people, but surely this should be a "Six Balls and it's an Over" law, because NZ is not a baseball nation.

Sadly, new prisoners must be housed somewhere, and when it comes to constructing new prisons in time for a surge of incarceration, NZ has prior form. When they decided to build Ngawha Prison in the middle of a geothermal area, who could possibly have expected that the geology would prove to be unstable, requiring vast cost overruns to strengthen the building's foundations?

The current Corrections Minister had one bright idea of assembling new prefab prisons by stacking up rusty old shipping containers. Prison hulks, as it were, without the expense of actual ships. Her next insight was the cunning plan of putting two prisoners into each cell designed to be large enough for one. The latter scheme has the advantage that once the precedent has been established, the same cells can accommodate three prisoners, or four, or eighteen; "Two is not a number", as the Pythagoreans were wont to say. Then there is the cost-cutting concept of privately-run prisons (because linking custodial policy to the profit motive has worked so well in the US).

The instigator of this three-strikes policy turns out to be Rodney Hide -- the National government would like to be nice liberal men of principle but once again their 58 seats in Parliament were outvoted by the five seats of the Opportunism & Corporate Interests party.

* A couple of years ago, Phil Goff -- then Minister of Corrections, now Leader of the Labour opposition -- was boasting that New Zealand is the Western world nation with the second-highest proportion of its population behind bars, second only to the US -- boasting, mind you, as a reason why Labour should be re-elected, rather than admitting the shameful fact as a cause for national recrimination.


M. Bouffant said...

I am starting to understand. This web log is part of a dis-information campaign to convince ignerent Yanks (who think NZ's all Hobbit-land & can't wait to emigrate) that things are no better anywhere in the world.

I don't blame you one bit.

And it worked. I'm staying far away.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I herr'd they have elf princesses, too.

mikey said...

Trying to change broad and harsh incarceration policies is almost impossible for at least two reasons. First, humans are apparently genetically predisposed to presume that bad things only happen to OTHER people, so anyone who doesn't happen to BE incarcerated tends to expect no ill effects from the incarceration of large numbers of their fellow citizens. And the people who are incarcerated have no voice.

Second, like any blunt instrument, large scale widespread incarceration of young men, whatever else it might be, WORKS in the sense that some subset of those incarcerated DO tend to be violent criminals. Lock up enough 18-35 year old males and I assure you the crime rate WILL go down.

Couple those with the instantaneous political toxicity of the accusation of being 'soft on crime' (I never understood how anyone could take that sort of accusation seriously - I mean, like 'soft on terrorism', shouldn't you have to explain why I think more violent crime would be a GOOD thing?) and you have a system that only moves one way.

I spent one fall in the Sacramento County Jail and was horrified to discover that the inmates' favorite tv show, the one that they refused to miss and woe betide anyone who tried to change the channel whenever it was on, was that FOX tv atrocity COPS. In a sense, locking up young me as a societal policy even apparently appeals to locked - up young men!

Substance McGravitas said...

You have a lot of ocean near you. Why don't you just put the prisoners there?

Smut Clyde said...

Also we have an old penal colony just across the Tasman Sea, but some punishments are TOO CRUEL even by the standards of dumbfuck voters.