I have been working as an alcohol and drug counsellor in Wellington for the last fifteen years. Most of my clients are in the justice system – which is not surprising considering that 80% of crime occurs under the influence of alcohol and drugs
During this time I have discovered that the courts repeatedly fail to mandate or encourage offenders into treatment; in 2012, only 13% of offenders were told to attend alcohol and drug treatment as part of their sentence. As a result, most relapse, re-offend and 70% return to prison within five years. Since 2010, there has been an increase in rehabilitation programmes available in prison but their effectiveness is very limited. There is almost no support for prisoners when they come out. This situation has been so frustrating to me that I wrote a book about it: Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct.
Flying Blind describes the way in which groups like the so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust have dominated public debate about justice and sentencing issues in New Zealand.
Victoria University criminologist Prof John Pratt has described this manipulation of the media as political populism and says it has driven competition between the major political parties in Western democracies to appear tough on law and order. This has led to increased use of remand, longer sentences and the building of more and more prisons. As a result, New Zealand now has the second highest rate of imprisonment in the West; we lock up nearly 200 people out of every 100,000 of our population.
In the process, little attention is paid to addressing the drivers of crime or providing rehabilitation. Flying Blind describes the political and systemic obstacles which stand in the way of early intervention and effective rehabilitation – and keep offenders locked into a vicious cycle of crime.
Flying Blind also points out that using prison as the default strategy for dealing with crime is ineffective and imposes an unacceptable financial burden on the taxpayer. New Zealand is facing the biggest financial deficit in its history and we need to find a new approach. This blog provides a vehicle for comment on these issues.
‘Pharmacological torture’ and the need for prison reform
In 2013, I began to pay attention to the inhumane and degrading treatment the Corrections Department imposes on prisoners in New Zealand. In particular, I became concerned about the use of the so-called At Risk cells where prisoners are subject to isolation, sensory deprivation and sleep deprivation. I found out that prisoners are frequently denied opiate pain killers and other common medications because the Department’s Medicines Policy “actively discourages” prison doctors from prescribing these medications. The Department also has a ‘minimum dental services policy‘ which is used to deny prisoners proper dental treatment often leaving them in pain for months on end.
Theses policies are so inhumane they constitutes a form of pharmacalogical torture and contributes to New Zealand’s high prison suicide rate. The Howard League for Penal Reform has also been helping to address these issues.