Why gang membership in prison makes rehabilitation impossible

by Rosemary McLeod / 19 May, 2017

Greg Newbold.

"Gangs and Maori you can’t split," says a man who has looked at Paremoremo from inside and outside.

Greg Newbold, a professor of sociology at Canterbury University, was a prisoner at Paremoremo for five and a half years, after being convicted of drug dealing. While in prison, he completed an MA with first-class honours, interviewing fellow prisoners and staff for a thesis on the social organisation of prison. It earned him a PhD scholarship, which led to an academic career.

Newbold remembers Paremoremo as a jail that would be unrecognisable today. “When I was there, everyone loved it, because the facilities were so good. We had a debating club and sports teams that played against outside teams. We had movies every Sunday. Then, at Christmas 1984, there was a big fight between the Mongrels and the Head Hunters, when the Mongrels were soundly dealt to. There was no more communal gym after that, and the debating club and Maori culture group were closed down. From that point on, it became worse and worse.”

The cycle of violent episodes and withdrawal of privileges seems to be a repeating one in jails. Alison Liebling, a Cambridge University criminologist with extensive experience of studying how jails work, writes about how alienation and retreat happen when nervous staff no longer know or recognise prisoners as individuals and perceive them to be unmanageable. This happens in Britain, Liebling says, when prisons deal with radicalised Islamic inmates in maximum security, but maybe gang members here are not dissimilar. She says risk needs to be managed through trust, and when trust is abandoned, jails are no longer upholding social order but generating a vicious circle of anger and alienation.

Alison Liebling.

Newbold looks to what creates criminals in the first place when he says, “You have to stop family violence, stop them being abused and being exposed to the kind of numbing, corrupting influences that destroy people’s life choices and give them perverse role models to follow.

“Children who are abused and uneducated and poor tend to grow up the same way as their parents. In the sterile environment of prison, some may come clean, but the weeds are still underneath. I did some research with [Canterbury colleague] sociologist Jarrod Gilbert and we found that the prisoners who didn’t reoffend mostly had a middle-class background and support through their sentence by family or other significant people. They got jobs, got married and had kids.”

For the rest, cutting back the Maori rate of reoffending, he says, is dreaming. “Gangs and Maori you can’t split. Most Maori in Paremoremo are gang members; they get forced into it by the very fact that they’re Maori. The most you can hope for is they won’t get caught again. How can rehabilitation work when they go back to the world they came out of?”

The corroding power of gangs comes through strongly in prison statistics, and Newbold won’t be the only person anticipating failure, despite good intentions. It seems simplistic to load responsibility for Maori recidivism and rates of imprisonment onto one government department; as Newbold observes, the causes are more complex than that. For one thing, police and prisons are increasingly dealing with the mentally ill, for whom police and prison cells have replaced old-fashioned psychiatric hospital beds.

Newbold’s nostalgia for the long-ago new Paremoremo illustrates how policy can start out in a spirit of optimism but become undermined by the power of unco-operative individuals. Hopefully, they won’t be given the chance to undermine an experiment in humanity in a setting more usually known for the lack of it.

Alarming facts about Maori and prison

Roughly 10,000 Maori children have a parent in jail.

Last month, the Waitangi Tribunal found that the Crown had breached its Treaty obligations by failing to tackle the high rate of Maori reoffending. This needs to be seen in the context of the Maori rate of imprisonment.

  • Our overall rate of incarceration puts us fifth in the developed world. Maori, who constitute 15% of the general population, make up more than half the prisoners, and the imprisonment rate for Maori under 20 is up almost a sixth on a decade ago. Meanwhile, 58% of female prisoners are Maori. A less bleak perspective is offered by Corrections chief executive Ray Smith: though half of prisoners identify as Maori, they make up less than 1% of the total Maori population.
  • Corrections – including Paremoremo – is now challenged to reduce Maori reoffending by a quarter by 2025. Much reoffending now is among gang members, who typically progress over time to more serious offences. Just under a third of prisoners are gang members, and 70% of those are Maori.
  • The Maori rate of reoffending is a third; for non-Maori, it’s a quarter. Within two years of leaving jail, two-thirds of Maori have reoffended, as against half of non-Maori. Within five years of leaving jail, 80% of Maori are likely to have been convicted of another crime, compared with 67% of non-Maori.
  • Drug and alcohol abuse lies behind much offending. Maori are the largest group in prison rehabilitation programmes and make up 55% of those in drug treatment units. Recidivism is lower among those who join the Special Treatment Unit Rehabilitation Programme. Such programmes are a recent development. In 2008, only 234 prisoners were involved in them; last year, there were 6413.
  • Roughly 10,000 Maori children have a parent in jail.
  • About a fifth of prison officers are Maori. There has been a recent recruitment drive to attract more.
  • Maori made up 13 of the 17 inmates diagnosed as insane in the 1988 Mason Report.

This article is an extract from feature story 'Prisoners of the past' in the May 20 issue of the Listener, on sale now.


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