On punishment and why we Kiwis can’t get enough of it

Garth McVicar worried that our country's prison policy is more concerned about helping inmates than punishing them.

In an article in this week's Sunday Star Times on the role of imprisonment in the rehabilitation of offenders, Sensible Sentencing Trust founder Garth McVicar expresses the view that the first priority of sending people to prison is to keep the public safe. It’s a relatively moderate statement from Mr McVicar, expressing perhaps the philosophy behind the excellent work done by the trust on behalf of the victims of crime.

A more characteristic expression of McVicar’s understanding of the proper function of imprisonment appears elsewhere in the article: His “second priority” is punishment: “We shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about that. Criminals need to be punished for their actions.”

Mr McVicar is, according to the article, worried that our country’s prison policy is more concerned about helping inmates than punishing them. And he’s not a believer in rehabilitation: “If you can rehabilitate those people, then you would have rehabilitated them long before they were imprisoned. The problem is when they get to prison they’re not long off becoming a career criminal … We need to focus on punishment and then rehabilitation once they’ve served time.”

But what sort of punishment? After a fact-finding visit to the US some years ago, Mr McVicar declared himself impressed with the tent prisons and chain gangs of shackled inmates he’d seen there. Nor was he averse to capital punishment if it could be shown to be a deterrent to homicide. (It can’t. Violent offenders do not dwell on the consequences of their actions.)

What seems to escape Mr McVicar’s notice is that being sent to prison is of itself the punishment for having committed a serious crime. The essential nature of the punishment is loss: loss of freedom, loss of choice, loss of income, loss of privacy, loss of dignity, loss of pride, loss of family, loss of friends, loss of affection, loss of love. And many other losses. But none of this is enough for Mr McVicar who believes prison should be nothing but punishment, and rehabilitation an afterthought “once they’ve served time." The irony is that his approach is little better than a recipe for reoffending.

And here’s an interesting question for Mr McVicar to ponder: Why is it that Maori make up only 15% of the general population but 51% of the male prison population and 58% of the female prison population? And why are the proportions for the much smaller Pacific Island population not dissimilar?

Bad blood or social deprivation? Well, we already know the answers common to colonised peoples around the world: poverty, unemployment, poor housing, educational underachievement, intergenerational violence, alcohol and drug abuse, racism. Take out the racism and the picture is similar for the European prison population.

You could argue, couldn’t you, that the punishment that prison represents is for many inmates really just an extension of the punishing circumstances that already characterised their life experience. I’d argue that.

So the concept of a system that requires further punishment for offenders before attempting to rehabilitate them seems to me not merely deeply flawed but totally counterproductive. Dealing with social deprivation and with the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor in this country might be a better approach.

Still, Garth is by no means a lone voice in New Zealand. We’re great punishers here. Can’t get enough of it, if truth be told.

Media trainer and commentator Dr Edwards posts at Brian Edwards Media.

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