Nigel Latta picks lock on NZ prison system

If you asked me which topic I was most looking forward to Nigel Latta covering in his new series, the corrections system would be my pick.

Given his previous professional experience in the corrections area, Latta’s approach in last night’s episode was refreshingly open and insightful.

Latta stated that New Zealand has around 8,500 inmates spread throughout 17 prisons. It costs the country $100,000 to keep an inmate in prison for a year.

A wide range of experts and convicted criminals alike were interviewed for their opinions, and each provided interesting food for thought.

Sensible Sentencing Trust founder Garth McVicar was of the belief that prison is the answer, and our current system is too soft.

Professor John Pratt, Director of the Institute of Criminology at Victoria University, and Kim Workman from Rethinking Crime and Punishment, shared the opinion that the media plays a role in inducing this mentality by leveraging the ratings it brings them and naturally focusing on the higher profile cases, with the trickle-down effect damaging the chances for other inmates to transition back into society.

Workman cited this as a factor in prospective governments trying to outdo one another with their policies on crime, which, he says, has contributed to a 300 per cent rise in our inmate population between 1990 and 2010, despite violent crime rates remaining stable.

Another issue discussed was the disproportionate representation of Maori in the country’s corrections system. Comparison was made to the US prison population, where the African-American population shares a similar ratio with New Zealand in both general and prison populations.

Latta sought opinion from several Maori inmates, both past and present, on this issue. They backed up the experts with their belief that the system is biased against them.

The aspect of the episode garnering the most promotion was Latta’s first-hand experience as an inmate. His journey began with sentencing, followed by a trip in a prison transport vehicle to Rimutaka Prison. There, he was processed, strip-searched, and shown to his cell where he spent the night. He was consistent in his narration of how daunting and unpleasant the experience was.

Despite his night in the cells, Latta was keen to devote the largest proportion of the hour to the parts of the corrections system that are actually working.

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Latta approved of the facilities at Spring Hill prison, where emphasis is placed on preparing prisoners for entry back into society. The prison features the standard secure housing units, but also has flatting-style accommodation which lets inmates learn how to live together. Inmates also have the opportunity to learn a skill and gain qualifications.

Latta witnessed proceedings inside the New Beginnings court, which aims to keep people out of prison in favour of treatment and community-based programmes. Even though the cost of these programmes to the taxpayer is significantly less than a prison sentence, and the success rate is streaks ahead.

As part of his conclusion, Latta shared his belief from his experience as a psychologist that to reduce offending, the issues driving criminal behavior have to be resolved. He also emphasised the need for a solid support structure that is there for inmates upon their release, which, if not present, can leave them between a lock and a hard place.

As for whether getting tough on crime is the answer, Latta responded by stating his belief that 5 per cent of the prison population should never get out of prison, but the other 95 per cent “will get out, and should get out”. He believes the game-changer is throwing away the talk on being tough on crime, and instead focusing on being effective on crime.

I believe it should be up to the viewer to come to their own conclusions on this series, so