Prison reform on the path to prison abolition

[Activist Olive McRae submitted this article to Socialist Review, and we were happy to print it in our latest issue. Nationals announcement last week of more plans for working prisons gives the article an added relevance and urgency. You can subscribe to Socialist Review here.]

“Those of us that identify as prison abolitionists as opposed to prison reformers, make the point that often reforms create situations where mass incarceration becomes even more entrenched and so therefore we have to think about what in the long run will produce decarceration, fewer people behind bars, and hopefully eventually in the future the possibility of imagining a landscape without prisons, where other means are used to address issues of harm. Where social problems such as illiteracy and poverty do not lead vast numbers of people along a trajectory that leads to prison.

In 1971  when the Attica rebellion took place, it was a really important moment in the history of mass incarceration, the history of the prison in this country. The prisoners who were the spokespeople for the uprising indicated that they were struggling for a world without prison. During the 1970s the notion of prison abolition became very important, in fact public intellectuals, judges, journalists, took it very seriously and began to think about alternatives.

However in the 1980s, with the dismantling of social services, structural adjustments and the rise of global capitalism, we began to see prison emerging as a major institution to address the problems that were produced by industrialization, lack of jobs, less funding in education, lack of education, the closure of systems designed to assist people who had mental and emotional problems, and now of course the prison system is also a psychiatric facility.

The question is, how does one address the needs of prisoners by instituting reforms that are not going to create a stronger prison system.” – Angela Davis (Val’s Show, 2014).

I recently attended the launch of ‘Unlocking prisons- How we can improve New Zealand’s Prison system”, a research project produced by an organization called Justspeak.

JustSpeak describes itself as “a non-partisan network of young people speaking to, and speaking up for a new generation of thinkers who want change in our criminal justice system”, according to their website.

They state that they “empower young people to speak out for change in the criminal justice system, informed by evidence and experience, towards a more just Aotearoa”.

Before I’d even arrived at the hui, I was critized for my scepticism about yet another privileged group of predominately white academics perpetuating the hegemony of the ruling class. Leading the charge for prison reform from their comfortable ivory towers. I am constantly reminded that the trickle-down theory surrounding wealth, also applies to knowledge, and without learned scholars to share their enlightened research with those of us that are ‘uneducated’, no substantial changes can occur – that working in collaboration with academics and the state is the progressive way forward for anyone serious about changing the oppressive conditions that we face under capitalism.

Reforms that have most impacted on me and my whanau, have stemmed from an abundance of research, reports, and theories, promoted by the bourgeoisie to be beneficial for those most disenfranchised by capitalism but in reality these reforms have simply compounded day-to-day struggle, and served to neatly stack the issues we face into a intellectual box that from time to time some do-gooder drags out to the applause of their cheering left mates.

The people who are most intimately affected by poverty and incarceration are the voices that are seldom heard in the capitalist media, aside from a few token ‘success stories’ drip-fed back to us by the ruling class. They are poster prisoners held up like trophies of success, who through a number of “evidence-based programs” have finally become enlightened to their criminal ways and learnt how to obey the law and successfully assimilate.

The research touched on statistics about prisoner’s class and race, sadly, yet predictably the recommended reforms focused on individual behaviour modification as opposed to addressing wider social conditions that prisoners face.

We know that 86% of women in prison depend on welfare, and therefore are living below the poverty line before and after incarceration. Those left to care for the children of imprisoned mothers predominately rely on welfare as well.

For whanau predominantly living in poverty, suffering severe financial hardship losing an income earner, coupled with the extra financial burden of supporting that whanau member as well as any dependant tamariki that person normally cares for is a day-in, day-out struggle of survival.

When the cost of incarceration is discussed, and here was no exception, it’s generally discussed in terms of cost to the state to imprison – the cost to the state being the driving argument for change. The real cost is seldom discussed and never financially analysed.

The actual personal economic cost when the state forcefully removes someone from society – the ability to earn through employment, care for dependent children, and participate in their community, your home – is the personal cost that destroy lives and yet unless you experience it, you are unlikely to grasp the magnitude of the impact that taking someone out of society has on that person and their loved ones.

For a whanau that’s just lost a loved on to incarceration and is trying to hold the threads of family life together, maintaining frequent and free communication is paramount to be able to try to mitigate some of the raft of negative consequences of incarceration, both emotionally, spiritually, and financially.

Prisoners have better outcomes when they are able to maintain relationships on the outside. Isolation and segregation from people from their whanau is damaging in a multitude of ways. Reforming the way in which prisoners are able to access their whanau seems logical given that currently Telecom are making excessive profit from prisoners’ overpriced phonecalls. Prisoners have to rely on friends and whanau to provide the money to purchase phone cards, and toiletries, as well as rent a TV from the Corrections department.

The Minister for Courts Chester Borrows announced a $27.8-million programme to upgrade nine prisons and 14 district courts to allow audio-visual links between prisons and court, and Mr Borrows is named as a friend of ‘Justspeak’ but somehow it isn’t a priority to allow prisoners to access this form of technology to promote communication with their outside support networks?

Substituting real and lasting connections with whanau for paid and contracted connections with church members and NGOs is the type of reform advocated for. Building databases of suitable volunteers to connect with prisoners doesn’t sound like reforms that take priority in the emancipation of prisoners, but these are the type of reforms Justspeak sees as beneficial for prisoners.

As I opened the research to begin reading what Justpeak advocate for, I was sick to the stomach to see that this very document was printed using the exploitation of prisoners themselves at the Rimutaka printing press. Justspeak, I learned, are huge fans of prison-work schemes and, as part of their reforms they advocate for implementation of more work schemes that use the slave labour of prisoners.

This follows a global neoliberal agenda of “inviting businesses to come into prisons to take advantage of the effectively free labour”, as British Conservative Prison Minister Crispin Blunt put it.

Justspeak advocate the same right-wing propaganda we hear time and time again. Prisoners need training and should be thankful they are given an opportunity to learn new skills. The labour carried out by prisoners often resembles all the elements of an apprenticeship, with one distinctive defining feature between the two, pay.

Employers who hire apprentices who are not in prison, must as of 1 April 2014, pay $11.40 an hour for those paid by the hour or by piecework, for those paid by the day, $91.20 for an 8-hour day (and $11.40 per hour per each additional hour worked over 8 hours in a day), and for those paid by the week, $456.00 for a 40-hour week (and $11.40 per hour per each additional hour worked over 40 hours in a week).

Workers in prison are expected to work for as little as $7 a week, and demand for employment in prison is high, competition brutal, so retaining your job is important and is often used as a form of power and control by screws against the prisoners. To support a prison labour force that works for ‘skills training’ with none of the protection of employment laws or wages, is taking part in the oppression of prisoners.

Justspeak proudly displayed their research booklets created with the stolen labour of the poor, and gladly accepted and welcomed donations to line the pockets of their organization. It seemed to not cross their minds that they were accepting money for the labour of prisoners, whose families should be the one’s benefiting from any labour produced by their loved one.

With an election fast-approaching, it was little surprise that candidates swarmed like flies to shit – not offering anything of value to the subject, but rather networking for votes, and nodding and golf-clapping in agreement with each speaker. It would be far too radical to think about the benefits of providing prisoners and their whanau with a stable, affordable, state house when they are released. Or the idea that to put a recently released person onto a “Work-seekers benefit” requiring a raft of ridiculous obligations might not be the best option for people who need time to adjust to being in society after being held against their will by the state.

Instead we continue to drop people just released from prison off on the doorstep of Work and Income with little to no chance of accessing their full and correct entitlements. Instead you’re issued what the state refers to as “steps to freedom”.

“The amount payable of a Steps to Freedom grant is the actual cost the client will incur to re-establish themselves in the community. This should fall under one or more of the following categories: accommodation, bond, or rent in advance, beds and bedding, essential appliances, connecting telephone, electricity, and gas, food,clothing and toiletry items. Work & Income Manuals & Procedures

What is the grand total made available to prisoners to rebuild their lives under steps to freedom? $350.

The common theme throughout this research was focused on individual behaviour modification, and working in partnerships with the state to “rehabilitate” “offenders” and advocating for “evidence-based programs” run by NGOs and church agencies, which is why the partnership model is so appealing to the state. Outsourcing key programmes and functions of the prison system to churches and other private-sector organizations, is a typical right-wing privatising tactic.

My expectation of the cultural hegemony of the launch was definitely not unwarranted, with a clear lack of critical pedagogy presented at every turn, as a group of bourgeois academics, enjoying every benefit their race and privileged existence has to offer, used prison reform as a way of making themselves feel good about their work. It was little surprise that though race and class are the predominant issue when it comes to who we are locking up, there was no mention of addressing the wider social issues that lead people on a trajectory to prison.

Since the hui I have learnt that Justspeak’s ultimate goals regarding Maori and the criminal justice system are “the showcasing of success stories around Māori and the criminal justice system; the utilisation of law as a force for good; the development of a Māori lens on policy; and the promotion of small-scale change”.

My argument is that these are the aspirations of academic assimilationists, not the aspirations of prisoners. It is impossible to deny the racial inequality in the criminal justice system, but rather than analysing the systemic institutional racism, Justspeak addressed this issue by having a Maori judge strongly advocating for more Maori courts for rangatahi.

Moana Jackson reminds us “caution must be used when courts are hosted on marae: this may constitute a colonisation of Māori space”.

It is not good enough, says Jackson, for a pōwhiri and karakia to be said, and then for courts to conduct “business as usual”. The capitalist system brings tinihanga (shame) on us by robbing us of the ability to be able to adequately feed and home our tamiriki and cripples our kiritau (self-esteem) and kiri kairangi (self-respect).

To even contemplate punishing a person individually without regard for wider social conditions and acknowledging that the system has, and is robbing us without regard for the wellbeing of our communities is absurd. This report offers nothing that is not already well known, and does not offer any real solutions, in fact in perpetuates the status quo.