I took an opportunity yesterday to speak in the Appropriations debate on the ‘moral and fiscal failure’ that is our prison system. Vote Corrections for 2011/2012 is set at a little over $1.1 billion, about two and a half times what it was a decade ago. That is an enormous amount of money to spend on what is a fundamentally flawed enterprise, that of locking more people away for longer in the forlorn hope that somehow that will make our communities safer.
Part of the spend is committed to yet another monument to failure and lack of imagination or leadership – the proposed men’s prison at Wiri, which is budgeted at around $370 million. That figure represents about eleven year’s worth of our current annual spend on treating drug and alcohol problems for prison inmates. This is despite the figures from Corrections indicating that alcohol and/or drugs are involved in around 80% of crimes committed.
Reinvesting that money into community based drug, alcohol and mental health treatment programmes; on literacy and basic education; on work creation and on accommodation to assist inmates to make the transition into society post-release, would all give a vastly better ‘bang for the buck’ and over time make our communities safer and more secure.
All the international research points that way, and it is a shame that this government and indeed the last one allowed themselves to be locked into the frame of ‘tough on crime’ rather than into a rational and compassionate approach to removing this blot on our national wellbeing.