Prisons said to be a moral and fiscal failure

“The general public need to be properly informed of what Bill English meant when he said that prisons are a moral and fiscal failure,” says Dr Kim Workman, Adjunct Research Associate at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University.

Dr Workman was present when Bill English made this statement in 2011 at a Families Commission 50 Key Thinkers Hui.

For at least the second time, Corrections Minister Judith Collins has chosen to re-interpret Bill English’s comments. I recall that soon after the Hon Bill English made the statement, she said, “What Bill really meant was that they were a fiscal failure because we have to pay as taxpayers for what other people have done. They are a moral failure because the prisoners have failed morally.”

In the Sunday Star Times article, ‘Passing Muster’ (11 December), Judith Collins modified her earlier statement, by saying, ‘that is the way I interpret it”.

I was present at the Hui, and recall that moment very clearly. After making the statement, Bill English followed it up with a moving story of an 18 year old who committed driving offences, and ended up in prison for a short time. He described how that experience had destroyed his life, impaired his chances for future employment, and caused considerable distress to his family. His message was plain and clear; he wanted to find other ways of dealing with offenders, because prisons were prohibitively expensive, and had the capacity to destroy peoples’ lives.

“When Ministers of the Crown, publicly ‘re-interpret’ what other Minsters say, they deliberately mislead the public”, said Dr Workman. However, if I was permitted to re-interpret Mr English’s comments, I would say that the recent plan to expand the prison estate is a financial failure, because it was done in the absence of an evidence based social investment strategy, something which the government is very keen on. It is a moral failure, because it will increase the level of social harm to mostly vulnerable and marginalised families, without reducing the level of victims in the community.