Why Prison Reform is an Educational Issue

Written by Stacey Shortall; 10 December 2018

Work is underway to reduce prisoner numbers in New Zealand from being some of the highest in the OECD. However lowering the prisoner count is not a criminal justice issue alone. It also is an education issue.


Over the past 20 years, I have met many imprisoned people. While often saddened by their circumstances, I know they have done wrong. Notwithstanding their sometimes-harrowing backgrounds, they have created victims, ruined lives and caused much heartbreak. I do not excuse or seek to justify what they have done. Yet having worked as a volunteer lawyer in New York State prisons and, more recently, in New Zealand’s female prisons, I have learned a few things from those behind bars that might stop us landing (or returning) them there and thus prevent more victims in the future.


I have learned that winding up in prison surprises few imprisoned people. Many have parents, other family members and friends who have served (or are serving) time. Where imprisonment has become commonplace in some families and communities, I have seen as accepted – even expected – the type of behaviour that leads to prison. I have seen the stigma of imprisonment reduced to a rite of passage; intergenerational jail time reduced to a cycle.


I have learned that prisons house few people with healthy bodies, minds or relationships. Physical and mental illness, cognitive and behavioural disabilities, alcohol and substance addiction, abuse and neglect, and family violence are common. The majority of those I have met behind bars have also been in (often numerous) state care homes as children.


I have learned that many imprisoned people do not have the skills or resources needed to get a job or lead a productive, crime-free life. I have seen how imprisonment tends to sever a person’s ties to non-criminal social networks. I have seen how a criminal record reduces employability for those released. I suspect there are communities in our country where people are currently more likely to land (back) in prison than ever be employed.


I have learned that many imprisoned people are parents – especially mothers. I have seen in particular how imprisoned mothers remain emotionally central in their child’s life and why suffering related to parental separation can be an important cause of the lowered performance of some children. I know that, at any given time, there are more than 20,000 children with parents in New Zealand prisons, who are reportedly at high risk of trauma and landing in prison themselves in the future.


I have learned that imprisoned people are more likely to come from poor communities, and to return to them upon release. In New York, most of the people I met behind bars were African-American; in New Zealand they are overwhelmingly Maori. I have seen how the consequences of imprisonment are widely felt in the kindergartens, schools and other institutions in such communities. Where communities are already struggling with high poverty rates, notwithstanding their very best efforts and intentions, I have seen how hard it can be to find the capacity needed to successfully transition imprisoned people back into society.


I have learned that there are people in our prisons – complex, damaged, disrupted people – who had the potential to lead productive lives, and that some still do. The difference between living a life of crime and a productive life seems, at least based on what I have seen, to be education.


Education can help to create the safer communities we all want to live in. It can deter crime, enable productive lives and reduce prisoner numbers. It can generate prospects, create wealth and cut poverty. Education is the key to severing our prison pipeline.


Teaching and nurturing children from an early age about positive behaviour, good health, and normal relationships can help them stay in school ready to learn. Engaging them in proactive programmes that teach self-esteem, respect, accountability, family responsibilities and even parenting if they wish can mean they learn the life skills that help them live crime-free. Programmes that raise awareness about self-defeating patterns of thought and behaviour, and link young people to counseling or targeted therapy, can be game-changers.


But not only can education be a fundamental driver in preventing people from going to prison in the first place, it can also help those who are imprisoned to get their lives back on track. Numerous studies show that education in prison programmes reduce re-offending, thus reducing crime and creating savings for taxpayers. Just by way of one example, the RAND Corporation in the US produced a report in 2016 that showed individuals who participate in any type of educational programme while in prison become 43% less likely to return to prison.


US reports also indicate that the children of parents who pursue their education while behind bars do better in school. Indeed imprisoned parents can role-model good behaviour and can inspire their children to break cycles by using education to open the doorway to improved lives.


It is for all these reasons that I believe investing in education can avoid New Zealand investing in prisons. This is why I say we must look beyond the criminal justice system to support our education system to help lower the prisoner count. No New Zealand child should be destined to become a prisoner. Education can be a key factor in keeping things that way.

Stacey is a partner at the MinterEllisonRuddWatts law firm and a trustee of the Who Did You Help Today charitable trust (www.whodidyouhelptoday.org) that runs Mothers Project, Homework Club and HelpTank.

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