Locked Up Down Under: Aspiring Lawmakers Point Out Prison Shortcomings

By Christopher Zoukis 

When New Zealand political candidates for an upcoming election were canvassed for their thoughts on the state of the prison system, they expressed the usual all too familiar concerns:

  •   The over-representation of minorities, and institutional discrimination against them by the system;
  •   Not enough being done to tackle drug and alcohol abuse;
  •   The inappropriateness of holding those with serious psychiatric illnesses in prisons; and
  •   A lack of adequate education and training for prisoners.

While American observers would be shocked to hear our own politicians expressed such views — or that they would even agree to answer such questions — these aspiring lawmakers are competing for seats in New Zealand’s 2014 parliamentary elections, and maybe there is much to learn from their thoughts on the matter.

Britain’s Howard League for Penal Reform sent questionnaires to all candidates and asked for their personal views rather than their parties’ official policy.

None of the candidates who responded were entirely happy with the current state of the prison system.  More than three-quarters would like to see New Zealand learn from the correctional systems of Finland, Norway, and Sweden, thought to be the most progressive and effective in the world.  Image courtesy prisonsociety.typepad.com

Recent trends of particular concern were the ever-increasing number of defendants held on remand, and the growing difficulty in obtaining parole, both of which are swelling New Zealand’s prison populations.

Minorities Suffer More Than Most

The treatment of women and minorities was seen as a major issue.  Not a single candidate felt that the particular needs of female prisoners were being met, and 85 percent felt that more needed to be done for Maori and Pacific Islander peoples, who are over-represented in New Zealand’s prisons.

Many felt that minorities face institutional discrimination in the criminal justice system, which compounds the effects of poverty and inequality, together with the increased rates of mental illness and drug and alcohol problems in their communities.

Read More

Marriage, Minorities and Drug Sentencing

By Jean Trounstine

An interesting article in the NYTimes last week made me think about marriage and incarceration and the inevitable link to how we send people to prison for years due to the so-called “war on drugs.”

Charles Blow, NYTimes columnist, quoted public health expert Ernest Drucker’s well-known 2011 book, A Plague of Prisons with the following stats:

■ “The risk of divorce is high among men going to prison, reaching 50 percent within a few years after incarceration.”

■ “The marriage rate for men incarcerated in prisons and jails is lower than the American average. For blacks and Hispanics, it is lower still.”

■ “Unmarried couples in which the father has been incarcerated are 37 percent less likely to be married one year after the child’s birth than similar couples in which the father has never been incarcerated.”

And guess why so many black and Hispanic men are in prison? You got it, the so-called “drug war.” Or as Blow calls it “the disastrous drug war,” or “a war on marijuana waged primarily against young black men, even though they use the drug at nearly the same rate as whites.” With television and the media, “reefer” has been glamorized to “reefer madness,” and indeed the sentencing of reefer is madness.

Image courtesy jeantrounstine.com

The drug war has brutalized so many with lengthy sentences. How can these sentences not affect marriage and families? Take for example Stephanie Nodd who according to her page on Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM)’s website served 21years of a 30-year sentence in a federal prison in Florida for a crack cocaine conspiracy she had been involved in for just one month. FAMM was able to influence the Sentencing Commission to make new guidelines and Stephanie was released.

Read More