top of page

We should educate prisoners - it works

Stuff: May 22, 2018

OPINION: Ballooning prisoner numbers is not a uniquely New Zealand problem.

Nor is it new.


When I first started volunteering as a lawyer in New York State prisons in 1999, the state's prison population had peaked at over 72,000 prisoners. I visited many prisons that seemed to be bursting at the seams. Although rising prisoner numbers was a plain issue, the public sentiment appeared to me to squarely favour tough (as opposed to smart) on crime policies.

But, over the next ten years as I continued to volunteer in New York prisons, I got to see first-hand what can be done to reduce a prison population and change the public sentiment.

Between 1999 and 2012, New York reduced its prison population by 26 per cent (while the nationwide state prison population increased by 10 per cent). As prisoner numbers dropped year-on-year, so did crime rates; reflecting how it is possible to reduce a prison population without compromising public safety. Specifically, between 1999 and 2012, New York's violent crime rate (murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault) reportedly fell by 31 per cent and its property crime (burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and arson) reportedly fell by 29 per cent.

People were safer, felt safer and started to further support New York State as it sought to relax some tough on crime policies and push for alternatives to prison. Instead of blindly following the long mandatory sentences and strict drug penalties made famous in the 1970s in New York, enforcement and sentencing reforms were made for drug offences. Approaches like offering drug treatment alternative-to-prison programmes particularly helped reduce prison admissions.

But, equally importantly, New York State started to better support prisoner education programmes - even incentivising some prisoners by offering reductions in minimum terms and earlier parole eligibility if they completed the programmes. I saw for myself how investment in such programmes made real differences to prisoners.

I represented women who learned to read, for the very first time, in prison; women who went on to complete university-equivalent courses and actively encouraged their children to do the same. I worked with men who learned how to prepare a CV and complete a job application form, for the very first time, in prison; men who positively influenced their children to stay in school so they could do the same.

Decades of research in the United States has shown that prisoners who participate in prison education programmes are far less likely to land back behind bars. Their rates of reoffending are dramatically lower than rates for prisoners denied these opportunities. In fact, as New Zealand struggles with a record-high prison muster, prisons are currently being closed and sold off in New York. Just shy of 20 years since I first visited those prisons that were bursting at the seams, New York has arguably become a model of successful criminal justice reform.

While there could be no real debate that prisoner education programmes reduced reoffending, it would be fair to say that not everyone I encountered in New York all those years ago was an advocate for such education. Some felt that offering education programmes was inconsistent with punishing prisoners who had created victims in the community. "It was soft on crime," I was told. "Why waste money on prisoners when they deserve only punishment for having created victims," it was said to me.

These people are entitled to their views. I understand the appeal of tough on crime policies. If they actually worked to deter crime, I might even support them.

But having worked as a volunteer in prisons in New York and, since returning home, in New Zealand too, I have yet to meet a prisoner who has described to me being deterred from offending because of any such policies. Far more frequently I have met prisoners who are illiterate, uneducated, unskilled and ill-equipped for leading successful, productive crime-free lives.

Academics and scientists are better placed than me to debate that tough on crime policies are costly and counterproductive. Community leaders are likewise better placed than me to explain how current sentencing laws may be doing more to damage disadvantaged communities than to prevent crime. Some New Zealanders will agree with what these people say. Others will not, and may instead argue that tough sentencing policies have played an important role in driving down crime rates (which is inconsistent with what I saw in New York, where fewer prisoners seemed to result in fewer crimes).

However if my opinion counts for anything – and people are entitled to different views there too – I suspect we can all agree that initiatives that actually stop repeat offending are a good investment. So, as the debate about what to do with skyrocketing prisoner numbers in New Zealand grows, I would encourage careful consideration of prison education reform.

While reports vary, it seems to be accepted that every prisoner costs New Zealand taxpayers over $90,000 for each year they are imprisoned. If education can stop a prisoner reoffending and re-entering prison, I look forward to seeing that cost saving reinvested in the disadvantaged communities most highly affected by our criminal justice system.

I certainly do not suggest that prison education programmes provide all the answers for our strained corrections system. Nor do I pretend that it is an instant solution. Criminal justice reform involving changes to bail, sentencing and parole laws will also be required. Further consideration of "front-end" initiatives like home detention, community service work, treatment courts, the placement of people in substance abuse treatment programmes and/or vocational training (rather than sending them to prison) will be needed – as will careful attention to the circumstances and factors that contribute to people ending up in prison to begin with.

But I witnessed in New York how prisoner education can stop the revolving-door that imprisonment often creates. I saw how it can change the lives of offenders and protect the lives of those who could have become future victims. I believe it can assist our Government reach its target of reducing the prison population by 30 per cent without adverse effects on public safety. I know it can help contribute to a safer New Zealand for us all.


Stacey Shortall is a partner at the MinterEllisonRuddWatts law firm. She previously worked as a lawyer in New York and also established Mothers Project in female prisons, Homework Help Club in low decile primary schools and the HelpTank digital volunteering platform. Find out more at

16 views0 comments


bottom of page