Jarrod Gilbert: Why male inmates could benefit from reform in womens prisons


By the numbers, prison is a man’s game. But by spotlighting women we find crucial insights into the problems of imprisonment and its causes.

The stats are boring but important, so bear with me. Around 94 of all prisoners in New Zealand are men, so they make up the bulk of the just-over 8400 people in prison.

Just over 50 per cent of the prison population is Māori. And given the tributaries that flow into the justice system – the significant social and economic problems – we ought to conclude, in my opinion, that this is the most important measure of the health of our country.

But prison is prison. And the many values of prison are well recognised. And the most obvious is that they are used to punish people for – often despicable – crimes. Bravo to that. While some of my more liberal colleagues see prison as something to abolish, I don’t hold that idea.

But certainly, I recognise the need for reform. And so does the Department of Corrections, which has just launched a revamped strategy aimed at wāhine prisoners.

The focus on women is important. Women are mums, and mums almost always have the kids; and children should always guide our moral compass. Every baby in New Zealand ought to be free of violence and dysfunction and have the opportunities to live a life loved and happy. And if they don’t get that immediately, at the soonest possible chance we should afford it to them.

The health and wellbeing of toddlers are the barometers of our future. We don’t just have a moral obligation toward them, but their wellbeing is also our economic future; they will either succeed and pay taxes or fail and each cost us a small fortune. Instructed by Bill English, Treasury found in 2016 that children brought up in environments of high risk cost the state $270,000 over their lifetime compared to just $33,000 of more fortunate children.

So wāhine in prison are important. And if we look at the data around women behind bars, we find things that are altogether not boring.

Sixty-six per cent of the female prison population are Māori, 68 per cent have been victims of family violence, and 52 per cent have post-traumatic stress disorder. And unsurprisingly, and perhaps consequently, 62 per cent have lifetime alcohol dependency and 75 per cent have been diagnosed with mental health problems in the last 12 months.

These data don’t just highlight that those we are locking up are deeply unwell, but they also indicate that in the vast majority of instances the drivers of the criminal offending. I’ve banged on about the need for a broad preventative approach to justice enough, so I won’t beat that again drum now. But if those numbers don’t convince us, what will?

While the rates of physical and mental health issues are notably higher for women in prison, the host of malaise is broadly similar among the male population. But there appears to be a bias in the public thinking around these issues.

Whereas men in prison attract little sympathy, women tend to garner a great deal more. While we can muse on the reasons for this, I’m more interested in the possibilities that this presents; if we can garner public support for initiatives that work for women, we might then gain traction to work in similar ways with men.

The current thinking about women in prison was sparked by the disturbing treatment of prisoners at Auckland Women’s Corrections Facility that made headlines last year.

The Office of the Inspectorate decided to undertake a review, and last week released a series of excellent reports into the treatment not only of those women, but also of female prisoners in general. These reports identified a number of areas of concern, including a “systematic failure of oversight” in the case of the three complainants, as well as some broader issues in the way that female prisoners are treated by the justice system.

This has helped drive the Department of Corrections to develop and release an updated women’s strategy for the next four years. This strategy – named Wāhine – E rere ana ki te pae hou – describes a holistic approach that focuses on respecting and preserving the dignity of wāhine in its care. Crucially, it also acknowledges the importance of factors such as addiction support and housing in preventing reoffending in the longer term.

It remains to be seen what this results in, but nothing could be clearer than the need for a targeted approach. And if successful, those lessons may be important to how we focus on that larger lot of men.

• Dr Jarrod Gilbert is the Director of Criminal Justice at the University of Canterbury.

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