An Interview on Incarceration in NZ and How it Should be Changed.
By Grace Hood-Edwards | Illustration by Hope McConnell
You’ve probably seen the No Pride in Prisons posters around campus, but may be unaware that it’s an activist group founded by students to combat the cruelties of the prison system, and the institution itself.
In other words, No Pride in Prisons, or NPIP, is a prison abolitionist organisation that believes in alternative forms of rehabilitation that are less harmful to human life. It does this by advocating with – and on behalf of – prisoners, facilitating communication between prisoners and the outside world through its pen-pal network, and through taking direct action.
I had an email conversation with Emmy Rākete, a sociology student at the University of Auckland, and the spokesperson for NPIP, about the group and its work. She told me, “We were, and remain motivated by a dedication to the principle that no human being is disposable.”
She said NPIP was founded in 2015 in response to the NZ Police and Corrections Officers marching in the Auckland Pride Parade. Rākete, alongside other early members, protested against this decision by blockading the parade. She said the protesters were all forcibly removed – a physical process that left Rākete injured. Since then, Rākete was elected as press spokesperson for the group, and also plays an active role in facilitating their research and outreach programmes.
Over email she expressed that until people’s physical living conditions are improved, something prisons cannot achieve, crime will continue. “The only way to solve crime is to solve poverty, solve racism, and solve the mistreatment of the mentally ill. Prisons don’t even begin to do any of that, and so they need to be abandoned in the medieval past, where they belong.”
In February of this year, the prison population in New Zealand hit an all-time high, reaching 10,000 – a 364 percent increase over 30 years, with Māori making up 56.3 percent of that statistic, according to Ministry of Justice figures analysed by the NZ Herald and Pundit. While some may see prisons as a means to deter and rehabilitate criminals, NPIP argues that prisons are inhumane and ineffective.
Rākete said NPIP’s overall goals are to help achieve a society that treats people fairly and equally, and that is not structurally oppressive. “We aren’t content with merely looking like we’re getting something done – we want to bring about real, lasting change.”
Rākete had an impassioned response to the mention of the $300 million rebuild of the men’s maximum security prison, Paremoremo, in Auckland.
“Paremoremo is a hole into which people are shovelled and then forgotten,” Rākete stated. “The rehabilitation programmes on offer are superficial at best.”
Currently Corrections uses solitary confinement as a punishment, which is internationally recognised as torture.
Apparently, Corrections recently gave up on its goal to reduce reoffending by 25 percent because they found they were not going to be able to achieve it. “Prisons just don’t do what they say they [will] do. Pumping a billion dollars a year into a system which does not and cannot stop social harm is wasting a billion dollars a year.”
Recently an investigation by the Department of Corrections into potential excessive force used by staff against inmates at Mt Eden Prison has caught the media’s attention. Rākete believes the situation in New Zealand prisons is the worst it has ever been, so public interest is the highest.
“The abuse of human rights have grown so egregious, people cannot help but pay attention to what the New Zealand government is overseeing. The more aware people are of the horrific nature of the prison system, the sooner they will tear that system to the ground.”
Rākete argues that the biggest issues in New Zealand prisons at the moment are overpopulation and the frequent and repeated human rights abuses that are perpetrated inside them.
“Prisons are the most overstuffed they have ever been. Measures to conceal the extent of this bloat have been brought in over the years, like keeping two people in single-occupancy cells, but the problem is only getting worse. Since the neoliberalisation of the economy in the 1980s, the prison population has exploded. Māori have been the main victims of the cancerous growth of the prison system.”
Rākete notes that the problem of overpopulation was made far worse when Judith Collins introduced the Bail Amendment Act in 2013, which caused prisons to become even more swollen with inmates.
The abuse of human rights in New Zealand prisons has kept NPIP and its advocacy network extremely busy, according to Rākete. A big focus for the group is getting people out of isolation cells. Currently Corrections uses solitary confinement as a punishment, which is internationally recognised as torture. A UN observer recently criticised NZ for the conditions in which its prisoners were held, especially concerning the use of solitary confinement. NPIP’s work around solitary confinement has involved members of the group occupying Corrections’ offices in protest around their confinement of individuals.
Rākete proudly mentioned that one of their advocates recently had a prisoner released from solitary confinement, and that they had his right to participate in rehabilitative programmes restored. “Solitary confinement is devastating for the mental health of prisoners, so forcing Corrections to stop subjecting a prisoner to that can be life-saving.”
“Prisoners are still dying in droves,” Rākete stated when I asked about whether prisons had evolved at all in NZ. “The suicide rate in prison is six times higher than it is outside of prison. Prisons are, at their core, tools for the suppression of Māori and the working class. Even if prisons were humane, they would still be tools of oppression.
“The prison system is absolutely worthless. Any positive personal transformation which prisoners experience comes in spite of, not due to, their incarceration. The changes which need to be made to prisons are so far-reaching that something entirely new is necessary to take their place,” Rākete wrote.
The steps that can be taken to enact such change exist in the organisation’s new book Abolitionist Demands. It is a 50-point policy document, which is available online or on their website, and it outlines and explains what needs to be done.
“If there is anything we can learn from prisons, it is that retributive practices do not work to stop harm from occurring. We need a system that can heal the relationships which are damaged when people perpetrate harm, and tikanga Māori can provide a starting point for developing that.”
Considering their utmost belief in rehabilitation, and their hope to abolish prisons and begin again with a fair and equal system of reformation, it seems like NPIP would support the ideological concept of a fresh start, or a new beginning.
“I think there’s a kind of mystical thinking about new beginnings. We are always living in the aftermath of history, at one point in a whakapapa which is unfolding through us. We never begin again, but we always go forward,” Rākete replied.
“No Pride in Prisons is committed to the idea that people and communities can go forward, and that this process doesn’t need to be mediated by the punitive, racist, weapon of economic violence that is the prison system.”