According to Section 5 of the Corrections Act 2004, the “purpose of the corrections system is to improve public safety and contribute to the maintenance of a just society” through “safe, secure, humane and effective” sentences, assistance with rehabilitation and reintegration, the best decisions by courts and the Parole Board, and corrections facilities that meet the UN Standard Minimum Rules of the Treatment of Prisoners and other sections of the Act.
The implication is that prison punishment consists of a simple lack of liberty; to meet the standards of public safety and justice, we are taking prisoners out of the community and punishing them by depriving them of a certain degree and amount of liberty, deemed proportional to their unlawful actions. We’re not punishing them with physical violence and psychological humiliation. We don’t do it that way anymore … in theory.
So we know that something is seriously wrong with prisons when sentencing judges have to take into account the high likelihood of physical, sexual and emotional abuse when determining jail terms:
“Transgender prison decision ‘a breach of rights’“, Radio New Zealand News, 20/12/2012
A judge at Whangarei District Court on Wednesday sentenced Glen Cooper [a transgender criminal] to a reduced prison term, because the likelihood of harassment in a men’s jail.
The court heard Cooper had already been attacked in jail while awaiting sentence.
The Department of Corrections said Cooper has not had sex change surgery so must go to the men’s prison.
On National Radio this morning, Kim Workman from Rethinking Crime and Punishment talked about how our prisons have become very secure, but highly unsafe. This Wikipedia article is a good read, making the same points; we have very few escapes or positive drug tests, but troubling figures for prisoner assaults on staff and other prisoners, and for mental health and suicide.
Let’s not let our base, vindictive, foolish, scapegoating punitive instincts get in the way of making prisons safer. When you take away people’s freedom and responsibility to look after themselves, it becomes entirely your responsibility to look after them and keep them safe. Letting prisoners be exposed to abuse and violence can’t do any good, it goes against the legislated role of prisons, and in no way can it be considered just.