"We don't hit the road cause we are thugs
Don't come out the womb wanna sell drugs
If we got the right guidance and love
Would we fight people just like us?
How could I knock the hustle to get by?
How do you think I ate as a child?
Judge no one, done many things wrong
Just don't boast about em in songs"
- Akala, Fire in the Booth Part I
Politics are a lot like designer sunglasses – it’s all about the frame. Take being ‘tough on crime’ – the tried and true conservative political talking point to get people to vote for them. A 2003 Ministry of Justice report found that 83% of New Zealanders believed crime rates were increasing despite statistical and factual evidence suggesting the opposite. A 2014 study on public perceptions of crime also found the majority of New Zealanders received most of their information from online news and television, and viewed both as ‘reliable’ sources.
Since the number one priority of television and online news sites is to generate views through sensationalist headlines to sell slots to advertisers (political advertising alone comprised 696 million dollars in 2014 to cable news); you have to forgive me if I question the reliability of ‘news’ that spends more time ejaculating over the royal wedding than on reporting their investment of millions of pounds overseas (evading the taxes they impose on their subjects) to exploit poor families.
Any time you tune in to current National front runner Symohn Bredjis, who has the charisma and appearance of a blight afflicted potato, he is banging on about how Labour is ‘soft on criminals’, and that repealing the three strikes law would be disastrous for New Zealand. This is the same guy who also believes in keeping abortion a criminal act – it’s almost as if giving women the ability to choose what they do with their bodies would reduce the number of demented semen monkeys that stuff themselves into suits and call themselves politicians.
Given Mr Potatohead has worked as crown prosecutor and has an extensive academic background in law[8,] you would think such an individual would pay more attention to factual evidence regarding their field of expertise. World renown research from Professor John Pratt (of Victoria University) has shown that punitive laws and ‘penal populism’ (political parties competing to appear ‘tough on [blue collar] crime’ to get votes) leads to justice becoming a game of political football instead of actually addressing crime.
Currently New Zealand has one of the highest incarceration rates in the OECD – 220 per 100,000 people. In contrast, the United Kingdom, a country that has massive issues with a punitive and ineffective for-profit prison system, has 141 per 100,000 (the United Kingdom has almost double the incarceration rate of Germany and coincidentally also possesses 9 out of the 10 poorest regions in Northern Europe), and America, the land of the slave, (“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any places subject to their jurisdiction” – the 13th Amendment) has 655 per 100,000. America, the richest country on the planet, also has 40 million people (1 in 8) who live in poverty and in worse conditions than the developing world. It’s almost as if there is a connection between inequality and crime but maybe that’s just a feeling.
New Zealand’s prison population has exploded over the last nine years in no small part due to surging housing costs, budget cuts to key social services such as schools, mental health, and community programs, as well as draconian drug laws and prison privatisation.
10% of people incarcerated were there for drug crimes – now this could mean anything from being a brown person caught with weed (Maori and Pasifika receive disproportionately more drug charges despite drugs being used by every ethnic group in New Zealand. Walk into a student flat in Dunedin, a city that is predominantly white, and the herbs you see sure aren’t oregano) or a gang member distributing methamphetamine. On a related note it cost 750 million dollars to buy a new fleet of NH90 helicopters, which are mostly used to bust weed. And in 2016 the total cost of prisons was 900 million (for a prison population of 9050, we now have 10,500).
Remind me again how there is no money to pay nurses and teachers.
Given that SecureFuture Wiri Holdings, a private company responsible for running a prison in South Auckland, made 8.2 million dollars in profit last year – and Corrections Corporation of America (the largest slavery conglomerate in the US) reported in 2015 that it made 1.79 billion (up from 1.65 billion the year before) - there are 8.2 million reasons why National (and occasionally Labour) politicians continue to regurgitate the line that they are ‘tough on crime’.
A 2004 speech given by National MP Tony Ryall showed how eager they are to bend over to private prisons by comparing it to the ‘international experience’ “Australia, Britain, Canada, South Africa, and the United States are expanding the use of private prisons. As incarceration increased, governments looked to the private sector for the capital to build new facilities.” With the exception of Canada, every country listed has increasing prisoner numbers, little to no impact on re-offending rates, and now have extremely lucrative prison industries that can politically lobby to keep their contracts and expand.
When you create a financial incentive for a corporation to keep people locked in a cage and reoffending so you can line your pockets, unsurprisingly you see the amount of people locked up increase under the pretext of being ‘tough on crime’. This isn’t “left wing dogma” as Ryall gibbers, fervently clutching his copy of Atlas Shrugged to cover his twitching turgid torpedo, but common sense – no board of directors are going to be dumb enough to harm their own interests.
Now remember the cost of incarcerating a single prisoner is just shy of 91,000 NZD a year. Given the median income of New Zealanders is 48,800 NZD (a median is if you divide all incomes into a 100 different ranges and then take the 50th range) we have to question the efficacy of paying almost double the median income of someone to lock them in a cage, where they will only become a more radicalised and hardened prisoner.
In 2016 a privately run prison in Mt Eden was discovered to be running ‘fight clubs’, where the staff would place bets and facilitate gang violence (as well as being the primary source of contraband). A crown commission study (that Serco, the private prison involved, actively tried to suppress) revealed similar fight clubs occurring in other privately run prisons (as well as in state run prisons) stemming back for years.
At this rate Serco should retire from running prisons and start writing Buzzfeed articles – TWELVE WAYS TO MAKE YOUR TAXES DISAPPEAR - YOU’LL NEVER GUESS WHAT NUMBER 3 IS.
We are supposed to believe that there is no magic money tree to pay for nurses, police officers, teachers – civil servants who serve the interests of the public (as opposed to politicians who serves the interest of their pockets and whatever corporation ‘donates’ the most money) – who are unable to live in the cities they work in; but we are perfectly happy to continue to lock people up (who then do not generate any income or tax revenue) using punitive prison systems that do not work.
European countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden are closing prisons due to not having enough prisoners, while private prisons in America sue the states they are located in if they are not able to enslave enough people (‘prisoners’ in the US work for 17 cents an hour in dozens of industries doing everything from firefighting, to making equipment for the military, to staffing call centres).
A large part of why these European countries succeed in actually reducing crime is the emphasis is not on punishment but on rehabilitating and reintegrating prisoners.For instance Sweden utilises prison classes (allowing prisoners to study part time or full time to get accredited) so prisoners can learn valuable skills and gain a sense of agency over their own lives. Prison management is also left to the experts instead of Thatcherite goblins pandering to their voters.
Now I don’t claim to be an expert on prison reform but it seems to me that we should be following the lead of countries that are actually reducing the amount of criminals (without compromising the safety and security of their societies) instead of trying to emulate what is nothing more than a dressed up re-imagining of slavery.
But of course 70% of National voters do not know anyone who is unemployed. If you are of the enfranchised upper classes you want to be ‘tough on crime’, so long as it doesn’t involve white collar crime, because then you’d be on the receiving end of the same punitive system you endorse for others.
If we were to proportionately punish the bankers who caused the 2008 crash the same way we punish blue collar offenders, they (and the politicians on their payroll) would be publicly executed for crimes against humanity for the millions of lives they destroyed out of their greed. But remember it is the immigrants [brown people] who are the problem.
If we are happy spending three times the average student debt (30,000 NZD) so we can do something that is shown not to work, we have to ask who benefits from this. Do communities in poor socio-economic areas that have crumbling infrastructure, limited job opportunities, and inter-generational cycles of poverty, benefit from us burning the money that could be spent on social investment policies?
Do the taxpayers, those who don’t have the money or means to hide their earnings, falsify their records, and shuffle their money overseas, benefit from wasting their blood, sweat and tears while they feel the pinch from rising costs?
It seems to me like the only people who benefit from this are politicians who get to vigorously jerk themselves off in public over who is ‘tougher on crime’ in order to get voted in, those who own private prisons (and the politicians who mysteriously receive ‘donations’ from them) and the media who are able to drum up sensationalised fear 24/7 by pointing to a few exceptional cases and making it seem like the norm.
One of the key reasons why punitive prison systems do not work is because we make the false assumption that those who commit crimes are rational actors, and will therefore be logically deterred by the severity of the punishment. In 1968 Gary Becker, an American economist, provided a new analytical framework for viewing crime by arguing that you should view a criminal as an individual actor presented with a set of choices.
If you are a high school drop out in a poor community with no strong family connections, and no good jobs available for you – breaking into houses and stealing is a hell of a lot more appealing than starving to death or living on welfare. This doesn’t condone or excuse such behaviour, but we have to ask the very important question of why people commit crimes if we want to prevent them. The thought of going to prison doesn’t really deter you, because your life situation is already so bad that being in prison (where you are at least fed three hot meals a day) may even be an upgrade.
You could argue that more punitive punishments simply encourage individuals to be more brutal because the punishment only matters if you are caught – so it makes a lot more sense for you to kill your victims or police officers who try to arrest you – than it is for you to get taken in.
So a more effective means of addressing crime is to provide the individual with a better set of choices – investment into effective childcare and primary education to instil a love of learning, social and community programs such as art programs and literacy programs to give them ways to express themselves (put that rage on a page or on stage) and develop skills, as well as to provide a support network especially for those who come from at risk backgrounds.
The Howard League for Penal Reform in New Zealand found that 5% of people in prison were there simply because they did not have a drivers’ license. 65% of Maori offenders had driving without a license as their first offense because 80% of jobs in New Zealand (especially in rural areas) require you to have your own form of transportation, due to our public transport looking as good as David Seymour in lycra.
70% of prisoners are also functionally illiterate so what options do they have to re-integrate into society when literacy is the baseline requirement to even get a job. You don’t need to read to hustle and steal, unless you’re talking the major leagues of finance and politics.
It’s much cheaper to pay for driving classes and better schools than it is to lock people up. Former Corrections Minister Judith ‘Crusher’ Collins, who seems to visibly orgasm every time someone mentions locking up boy racers, talks in a speech about the ‘economic cost of crime’ about how she wants to unleash the potential of New Zealanders; yet she is a key member of the political party that loves slashing funding for the very programs that help prevent crime, while pouring more money into private prisons.
If locking someone, who is functionally illiterate, in a cage, at great expense to their community, and then dumping them out on the street a decade later, having given them no actual means to re-integrate, is “unleashing their potential”, then Crusher C has to be dense enough to possess her own gravitational pull and, like a neutron star, collapse inward under the staggering weight of her own stupidity.
Or as Occam’s razor would suggest – she is in on the take. If prisons are a business and you are a member of a party that loves to boost ‘business confidence’ (how many taxes can we evade, and how badly can we exploit your citizens) it doesn’t take a genius to assume that money is changing hands. After all Crusher C’s (which is apparently pronounced conflict-of-interest) husband, David Wong-Tung is the CEO of Oravida – a Chinese based company that deals in New Zealand dairy products. Crusher Conflict-of-interest later met several Oravida executives for ‘dinner’ (she later publicly endorsed Oravida’s products) while she was on government business in Beijing (flying business class, staying in luxury hotels, paid for by us while we have people sleeping on the street and being crammed into prisons).
When we talk about politicians being in bed with business, we usually don’t mean literally but Crusher Conflict-of-interest is shattering that particular glass ceiling. Coincidentally Crusher Conflict-of-interest sold a luxury beach house in Auckland (double the average size of a normal house) for 1.9 million in 2014, which she had earlier purchased for 1.17 million back in 2007. When asked if she had reported the 773,000 (remember the median income for New Zealand is 48,800 a year) capital gains to the IRD (Inland Revenue Department) she declined to comment. Curiously for someone whose fetish seems to be punishing others, you see very little remorse or acknowledgement about abusing your role as Corrections Minister to personally enrich yourself, but this is the party that is ‘tough on crime’.
It’s never about how do we actually address massive social issues that affect all of us, but how can we frame it so as to score points in the game of political football. Mainstream media is complicit in this because they only care about views - you will have media pundits who make a living off projecting verbal diarrhoea, while meaningful academic research is ignored because you can’t compress it into a PR soundbite. Both establishment parties – Labour and National are complicit in catering to penal populism in the orgiastic cacophony of masturbatory screeching about being ‘tough on crime’.
A meaningful way for us to change things is to turn off the idiot box and read. Stop supporting politicians and parties that pander to this nonsense, and actually ask hard hitting questions on why we are not doing what is proven to work in other countries. The ‘news’ media is just as complicit in this political football as the politicians who profit off it. Any change will have to come from the citizens who form the basis of democracy. People don’t want to stray from the comfortable centre because they often don’t know enough to think for themselves. So the first step is to address ignorance because, unlike Mr Potato Head and his silver-spoon squad of shifty snake-eyed sons of bitches, ignorance can be destroyed.
To quote Tupac’s godmother, Assata Shakur, “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them. Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that knowledge will help set you free.”
That burden, rests always, with you.
 https://www.stat.auckland.ac.nz/~balemi/attitudes-crime-punishment.pdf - pages 13 and 81 for summary. Note at the time of the survey (1999) the cost of incarceration was around 55,000 NZD a year. It is now 91,000 NZD
 https://www.justice.govt.nz/assets/Documents/Publications/Public-perceptions-of-crime-and-the-criminal-justice-system-survey-2014-results.pdf - pages 23- 33 for information sources and reliability. Note it depressing states that since 2013 ‘word of mouth’ and social media have become increasingly more prominent sources of information regarding the criminal justice system and that 25% of people viewed tv crime dramas as an accurate source of information.
 https://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2016/06/30143308/state-of-the-news-media-report-2016-final.pdf – page 33. Pages 6-7 summarise decline in print media. Page 18 notes increasing private ownership of media.
http://hope.journ.wwu.edu/tpilgrim/j190/Chomsky.summary.html - for a concise overview of Noam Chomsky’s arguments on the role of the media in silencing dissenting views and controlling political discussion in Manufacturing Consent
https://www.adweek.com/tvnewser/msnbc-ad-revenue-up-more-than-60-in-january/358062 - Trump is a saviour to news networks by constantly providing an endless stream of content which generates clicks which generates ad revenue.
 https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/104608068/governments-three-strikes-repeal-killed-by-nz-first - National fearmongering with the three strikes letter.
 https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2018.html - total number and breakdown of offenses.
https://www.oecd.org/about/publishing/38148812.pdf - in 2005 it was 738.
 https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22533 – UN Special Report on Poverty led by Phillip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on poverty and inequality.
 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1745-9125.1991.tb01087.x - notes increase in community crime e.g. blue collar crime.
 https://www.drugfoundation.org.nz/policy-and-advocacy/drug-use-and-criminal-justice/ - segment on Maori and Pasifika
 https://globenewswire.com/news-release/2016/02/10/809594/0/en/CCA-Reports-Fourth-Quarter-and-Full-Year-2015-Financial-Results.html - ironically the ACT Party, who are all about ‘liberty’ and getting the government off their back push for more measures to punish crime. It’s almost as if anti-state ‘libertarians’ want to hollow out the state until it is nothing more than an enforcement arm they can use to protect their private property.
 http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/4517.0 - Australia
https://acjr.org.za/resource-centre/The%20impact%20of%20sentencing%20on%20the%20size%20of%20the%20prison%20population.pdf – South Africa
https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/541667/prison-population-story-1993-2016.pdf - Britain/UK
https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2017001/article/14700-eng.htm - Canada
https://sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Trends-in-US-Corrections.pdf - US has shown a 500% increase over the last 40 years.
 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4472929/ - note the UK is as high as 78%
 https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37904263 - note the people opposed to closing prisons are right wing political parties who claim they are being too soft and prison guard unions who claim that their job security is threatened by closing prisons.
 https://www.chicagomaroon.com/2012/05/25/the-economics-of-crime-with-gary-becker/ - for a summary of his arguments. The original journal article – the Economics of Crime is also available online.
 http://www.nzhowardleague.org.nz/# - under ‘legal drivers’
Born somewhere between the old world of Korea and the new world of New Zealand Isaac is an award winning writer, teacher of literature and nomad currently residing in Nanjing.