Condemned to prison… from birth?

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Written by:

The revelations of the Commission of Abuse in State Care over the past few years have been difficult to listen to.  There have been, from my perspective, two main stories interwoven through all the accounts.

The first is the terrible abuse of institutional power inherent in the system. It appears that the more powerless, needy, disabled, brown or disconnected a child was, the worse she/he was treated. While we might expect this in certain other countries, it is a slight shock that things were so bad here.  Or maybe not.  There is a cruel streak evident at times in Aotearoa.

The second was the lifetime consequences that the abuse had on many of the victims.  The stories have been terrible to hear, but hear them we must.

A new piece of that puzzle was unlocked yesterday when figures were presented which confirmed the existence of a ‘state care to prison pipeline’.

Comparing data across agencies confirmed that those in care had, at worst, a one in three chance of going to prison, much, much higher than the general population.  The figures were worse for Maori, as with everything else in this space.

But that is only the beginning of the story.  Because, since 1990 until around 2018, imprisonment rates soared in New Zealand.  Caught up in this rise, which there is plenty of evidence was politically motivated by the ‘tough on crime’ lot, prison numbers more than quadrupled, causing a huge burden on our society and on the most deprived communities.  This inevitably caught more ‘state care’ people in the pipeline, so the figures that that imprisonment rates increased over time.

The report is a bit sparse.  There are no gender figures, for example, and I think it is very important that we understand the pathways of women from state care. Women’s imprisonment rates are, of course, much lower than men’s, but when they do go to prison the effects on the whanau are huge.  The home is broken up, the children either live with relatives or go into care (and is there still abuse in care? – yes there is, say participants) and there is a ripple effect.

Jarrod Gilbert noted this when asked about gangs like the killer beez.  He said that the women, the mothers were very important but they were often themselves in trouble.  Make a community of strong women and you have a strong community.

The other thing that is not discussed at all, but links to my own research, is what happens to people in prison.  I have found that people often strongly support our extra-punitive system (we have no open or low security prisons at all) until you take them through it.

If you put people in prison, who often have numerous problems such as health, mental health and addiction issues, are often victims of abuse themselves (again confirmed by the abuse in care findings), they find themselves in an authoritarian institution (again) where thinking, acting or improving their life is discouraged.  The model prisoner is quiet and co-operative, not working hard to make a better future for themselves.

The result is that problems are not overcome and harm continues.  That is why recidivism rates are so appallingly high.

In short, our prison system is a holding tank which makes little effort to heal the harms that brought people into the system.  This is particularly true for women, but also for men.

So not only have these people, abused as children, been pipelined to prison, often collecting little education, skills or aspirations along the way, but the pipeline does not end at prison.  There it swirls around not knowing where to go.  There is no help.

It does appear that Andrew Little’s 2017 intervention, asking why prison numbers kept rising, has had an enduring effect on the prison system.  Now what we need is prison reform, to stop punishing the punished, to stop bullying and warehousing the most disadvantage and to find ways to provide other pathways and better futures for the lifetime victims of state abuse.

Many, many redresses will need to emerge from the  Abuse in State Care Commission, both individual and systemic.  Here is one where work has started, but rather stalled, and where progress is possible.

2 Responses

  1. Given that in the 1970s Māori girls were twice as likely to be in care as non-maori males, the absence of gender is a real gap

    Great start Liz

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About Insight Aotearoa

Most of the blogs published here will either respond to initiatives elsewhere or will be ‘newsmaking’. Some will also be reflective in more general terms. The blogs will be topical and interesting. I like to inject some humour into my blogs.

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