One reason our incarceration rate is stubbornly high

by Marc Wilson / 01 February, 2017

Photo/Getty Images

As long as prison inmates’ psychiatric problems go unresolved, our incarceration rate per capita will remain among the highest in the OECD.

Since the Roast Busters scandal in 2013, there has been some debate as to whether New Zealand has a rape culture. This is a highly nuanced discussion, but in one small corner of it, you can see questions about how much sexual violence there needs to be before it can be considered a “culture”. At last year’s Psychological Society conference, Jan Jordan, an associate professor in Victoria University’s school of social and cultural studies, invited us not to ask ourselves how much sexual offending there needs to be before it’s considered a cultural problem, and instead ask whether any level of sexual offending is acceptable. She was making a valid point.

Jordan is part of a successful criminology programme. Indeed, almost one in five of the 1400-odd first-year students I teach psychology to at Victoria take the subject alongside criminology. A further one in 10 are studying law. Clearly, lots of them hope to be FBI profilers, but although that is probably a pipe dream, it’s a solid career move to consider becoming a psychologist in correctional and forensic settings.

The Department of Corrections is the country’s single biggest employer of psychologists (there are probably more spread around the DHBs, but they’re technically different organisations). This is because when it comes to incarceration rates per capita, we rank No 7 in the OECD – in your face, the UK, Australia and Canada. Watch out Mexico and Poland, because we’re coming at you.

Devon Polaschek: interest in violence.

This brings me to former colleague Professor Devon Polaschek, until recently director of our master’s programme in forensic psychology. After more than 20 years at Victoria, Polaschek – an expert in forensic and criminal psychology – has headed for Waikato, but she marked her departure with a talk.

In it, she traced her interest in violence to several experiences, including the physical clashes that marked some of the 1981 Springbok Tour. She noted that New Zealand’s high incarceration rate is not a recent development: our love of imprisonment dates back to the early 20th century.

Why? Polaschek thinks the ­argument made in the book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better might have something to do with it. Namely, that the root of social problems is not the average standard of living, it’s the levels of inequality between those at the top and bottom of the greasy pole.

She described her time working as a psychologist in various correctional ­settings, some of which sounded a little like ­something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She mentioned the 1988 Mason Report, which detailed that a significant number of inmates had an untreated psychological disorder. The report recommended the establishment of Regional Forensic Psychiatry Services to provide care for prisoners.

For a sense of the scale of the problem, look at the 1999 National Study of ­Psychiatric Morbidity in New Zealand Prisons (psychiatric morbidity generally refers to the incidence of both physical and ­psychological deterioration as a result of a mental or psychological condition). The study showed that of the 1300 ­prisoners ­considered, only about 10% did not meet criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis.

My italics are to emphasise that nine in 10 inmates experienced such ­illnesses as ­schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, ­post-traumatic stress, depression and personal disorder. We might not lock people away in asylums in the way we used to before the era of deinstitutionalisation, but our prison population isn’t going down.

So, want a job? Your local correctional ­facility needs you.

This article was first published in the January 21, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.


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