Creative thinking needed for penal system

17:00, Apr 29 2012

You could almost hear the sighs of relief from a grateful public when Rod Petricevic, director of the failed Bridgecorp company, received a 6 1/2 jail sentence for misleading investors.

At last, here was one of the dodgy finance company guys getting his just deserts for causing so much misery among elderly and vulnerable investors.

As blue-collar criminals have had increasingly heavy sentences imposed on them, we've seen white-collar criminals get slapped with smaller and wetter bus tickets.

Surely Petricevic's substantial sentence will send all those other finance company wide-boys a message?

I'm not so sure. I feel a better message to send to the financial community would be stricter regulations and industry levies to recompense ripped-off investors. I felt strangely hollow after the Petricevic verdict. This is probably because after I enjoyed that first sniff of vengeance, I remembered that prison is an almost total waste of time, whether the offender's collar is white or blue. Provided Petricevic doesn't assault a guard or start a P lab in his cell, he should be out in just over two years.

As successive governments have bowed to public demand and increased prison sentences, they've had to build more prisons. As they've done this, we've all quietly ignored the fact our prisons don't work. The more people we put in prison, the more they reoffend. Even National Party ministers have admitted as much. If the Government employed Ken Ring to build a multi-million dollar earthquake prediction centre there would be a justifiable outcry, but when they do a similar thing and build a useless and expensive new prison, there is hardly a tremor.


Private prisons are now big business so watch out for increased lobbying from the operators to build more. Will we become like the United States, where private companies apparently hold trade-fair type displays of punishment equipment for eager government representatives to test. Leg irons anyone?

Meanwhile, our prisoner reoffending rates aren't just bad, they're criminal. Longer sentences mean we get a greater feeling of satisfaction when a bad guy goes down, but the Corrections Department is left with the problem of where to put them and what to do with them. And we feel no safer on the streets.

Rather than build more expensive prisons, or construct Third World containers, wouldn't it be far better to actually intervene in prisoners' lives so they are less likely to reoffend?

That's why I've been so impressed with Maori Television's Sunday night show Songs from the Inside. Four excellent Maori musicians go into a prison and teach song-writing as way of hopefully reforming prisoners. It may sound very bleeding-heart liberal but I suspect their hit rate will be higher than much that passes for prison rehabilitation.

The show has become such appointment viewing in our house that no-one is allowed to utter a word during it – the dog and I silently endure a lockdown of which the burly guards at Rimutaka Prison would be proud.

What Songs from the Inside shows is that rather than all being "feral" rat bags, some prisoners acknowledge that they've made mistakes and wish to reform. They generally have low levels of education, and most have been sexually or physically abused, often while in state care. Though conservatives would far prefer prisoners to be doing "useful" things like hard labour, undertaking an activity as creative as song writing forces the prisoners to take a long hard look at themselves – something you don't have to do on a chain gang.

It's been great to watch the four talented songwriters impart their knowledge. And the often heart-breaking and beautiful responses from the prisoners show perhaps they are worth the money and effort being invested in them.

Though putting prisoners behind bar lines rather than bars might be unorthodox, our dreadful recidivism rates show that a far more creative and educational approach is long overdue in our Victorian penal system.


The Dominion Post