New Zealand has one of the highest incarceration rates in the OECD, and each prisoner costs the taxpayer an average of $90,000 annually. We also have one of the highest rates of family violence in the world: in 2014 alone, police investigated 100,000 domestic violence incidents.
The impact is intergenerational and the social costs devastating for individuals, whānau and the nation.
Many prisoners have been exposed to harmful social conditions early in life and then go on to perpetuate harm in their own families and communities. In September 2015, Treasury released an analysis of specific factors that put children at risk of a blighted, violent or criminal future with resulting economic and social costs to the rest of society. The three principal risks were having parents or caregivers in prison, which affects 23,000 New Zealand children, being known to Child, Youth and Family services and being supported by a benefit for most of their childhood. Of those where all risk factors were present, over three-quarters did not achieve NCEA level two, or were excluded from school early, a quarter entered the youth justice system and over 80 percent went on to receive a benefit as an adult.
To reverse the trend and break this self-perpetuating cycle, radical change is needed.
As part of her research, Associate Professor Tracey McIntosh works with women in prison and men after they have left prison, and she is one of the Principal Investigators on a new population-wide study of violence prevention, with a particular focus on those two groups. Education is one of the most important tools for realising potential.
As part of her research, Tracey supports prisoners studying for their NCEA and for university papers and teaches classes in creative writing. Over time the prisoners themselves become part of the research endeavour, working alongside her as agents of change.
Intervention is required at every level to create wellness and help the future generations in communities where there are intergenerational problems. This involves looking beyond the more obvious risk factors. We know, for example, that there is an alarming rate of hearing impairment and ear disease among adult prisoners – as high as 52 percent – and that untreated hearing problems can cause developmental, educational and communication difficulties. At the School of Population Health, Professor Peter Thorne’s focus is on improving early identification and access to treatment for children with problems such as glue ear and on providing rehabilitation of hearing disorders for adult prisoners. Being able to hear properly enhances the ability to learn and socialise. The costs involved in identifying and fixing such hearing difficulties are likely to be much less than the ongoing social and economic costs of not doing so.
There are also opportunities to intervene when young people first enter the criminal justice system. Professor Peter O’Connor has been taking theatre programmes on parenting and preventing family violence and child abuse into youth justice facilities. The structure and discipline of the arts helps people struggling with their lives to find a way to become more productive citizens, which is vital to our ongoing financial and social success as a nation.
New Zealand has the opportunity to demonstrate global leadership in research that will bring about intergenerational change to drastically reduce violence and transform society.
“Sometimes it helps to think that the worse things are, the bigger the opportunity to make positive change. We are at a crucial tipping point with family violence, where we really have a will to change, and some powerful and talented people are prepared to step up to exercise leadership in making that change happen.” Associate Professor Julia Tolmie, Faculty Of Law and Chair, Family Violence Death Review Committee
In a recent edition of Ingenio magazine, Associate Professor Tracey McIntosh talks about the insights she is gaining, with the help of former and current prisoners, into what she calls “the deep, dark well of violence in our society”.