The incredible cost of imprisonment, which has increased dramatically over the last two decades, reveals the sick priorities of the capitalist system. Unable to find the cash to pay for decent health and education and warm, dry housing for working class people, our rulers are happy to waste hundreds of thousands on imprisoning thousands.
The shipping containers the National Government has proposed using as cut-price, no-frills prison cells cost more per bed than the average house!
Our incarceration rate, the second highest in the western world, is an expensive joke. Far from reforming prisoners and providing security, imprisonment drives re-offending and violence.
In 1985, there were 2820 prisoners in New Zealand. Now there are around 8000 prisoners and almost 7000 corrections staff and, despite Labour’s prison-building spree, the overcrowding crisis increases as longer sentencing pushes more people into jail for longer.
Both the Labour and National governments have worked relentlessly to push law and order as the biggest threat to decent New Zealander. Finance Ministers dedicated to slashing public spending on health, education and social welfare have somehow found millions for incarceration – the cost of housing one prisoner is $248 per day – almost double the student allowance or unemployment benefit per week! Per year, that works out to $90,74, more than three times the median wage ($27, 924).
At around 190 prisoners per 100,000 population, New Zealand has one of the highest imprisonment rates in the developed world. Of Western countries, only the USA is higher as almost 800 per 100,000. Australia’s rate is 126.
While there is a clear link between crime and unemployment, with rates for both peaking in the mid-1990s, the ideology of law and order has created a self-perpetuating cycle, where the failure of imprisonment to increase people’s sense of security only feeds demands for harsher sentences and prison conditions.
The ever-increasing number of prisoners has created a situation where cells designed for one inmate will now be used to house two, increasing the likelihood of violence and rape. The other suggestion from “Corrections” Minister Judith Collins is converting shipping containers into prison cells. This has been rightly denounced by the Howard League for Penal Reform as a “third world tactic”. Collins says the scheme would save money and, although per bed the containers would cost less than the normal $643,000 per bed, at $380,000 per bed – more than the average cost of an entire house – the shipping containers are still outrageously expensive.
Half of all prisoners are Maori although Maori are only 14 per cent of the general population. All over the western world the same picture of racist justice emerges. In Hawaii, native Hawaiians (nine per cent of the population) make up 39 per cent of the prison population; indigenous Australians (three percent) make up over twenty per cent of the prison population; in Canada, indigenous people (four per cent) make up over twenty per cent of the prison population; in the USA, African-Americans (14 per cent) make up 44 per cent of the prison population. The same trend can be found in Europe. In France, Muslims (who are almost all non-white immigrants) make up 12 per cent of the population but 60-70 per cent of the prison population.
In the face of this profound bias, it is impossible to defend the prison system without being racist.
Fighting crime – for real
There’s a true saying that possession is nine-tenths of the law. The defence of possessions – of property – is the main concern of the entire justice system. In New Zealand, ten per cent of the population owns 50 per cent of the wealth, and half of the population (most likely including readers of Socialist Review) owns less than three per cent.
This wealth is not just in the form of money and mansions. It is the shops, offices, cinemas, restaurants and workplaces we spend most of our lives in. Our environments are made up of property that belongs to a wealthy elite. What’s more, their wealth is all created by the labour of working people – no matter how much they bleat about their brilliance. This is an unnatural state of affairs. As Frederick Engels put it “Capitalism produces crime like a running man produces sweat”.
To maintain order, a vast system of control is needed. For most people, these controls are internalized – we recognize the impossibility of changing the world through shoplifting or breaking the speed limit. Many people – especially young people – require force to be kept in line.
We aim to replace external force with self-policing communities, where there is no need for the bizarre inefficiencies of the present justice system. But self-policing communities are impossible unless those communities really control their workplaces, neighbourhoods and towns. The real thieves are the wealthy few who enrich themselves from the work of others. Until this obscene inequality is ended, then ‘justice’ and ‘corrections’ will remain a sick joke.