Overhaul of prison system called for

FIRST-HAND EXPERIENCE: Paul Wood supports the JustSpeak campaign.
FIRST-HAND EXPERIENCE: Paul Wood supports the JustSpeak campaign.

A new report on New Zealand's prison system is calling for a stronger emphasis on restorative justice. But does that just mean going soft on criminals? Jess McAllen reports.

Paul Wood is a sharply dressed Auckland specialist in leadership and personal development who quotes Plato at the drop of a hat and whose partner has a baby due in August.

He has also spent 11 years in prison for murder.

On New Year's Eve, 1995, when he was 18, Wood killed a man. His mother had died two days earlier. He was an addict and when his 42-year-old dealer made a sexual advance, Wood struck out with a softball bat and "extreme physical violence".

"I found out subsequently he had a history of getting young guys hooked on drugs and then sexually assaulting them, and that was his intention with me. But he ended up dead and I ended up in prison, unable to make my mother's funeral."

Wood was sentenced to life and was released after 11 years for good behaviour.

"But I killed someone, so that's the end of their life, I had the opportunity to change but they don't. They have no opportunity for anything."

Wood is speaking out in support of the prison reform organisation JustSpeak, which on Tuesday will release its report into the state of the New Zealand justice system.

The 158-page report, Unlocking Prisons, urges New Zealand politicians to transform our justice system into one focused on rehabilitation rather than retribution and punishment.

A growing alternative to prison is restorative justice, where a victim and offender come face to face as part of a healing process. It's about resolving crime, redressing harm done to victims and holding offenders to account while members of the community determine the resolution of conflict.

The process is used extensively in Norway, where prisoners are put in a comfortable cell, a clean and relaxing environment and offered daily activities such as cooking classes.

The pleasantness of the experience can sound outrageous, but the niceness of it all is exactly the point. The concept of restorative justice looks at the history or circumstances of an offender and what led them to the crime. Incarceration is not about simply locking offenders away from society but fixing what society broke.

New Zealand has a restorative justice option but JustSpeak claims it is a minority experience, even though it's encouraged, where appropriate, under parole and victims' rights legislation.

Wood has turned his life around since leaving prison in 2006, but agreed the justice system needed to change. He said that for him and many prisoners, being locked up for years on end achieved little. Complaints about prisoners living luxurious lives with heated floors and TVs miss the point, he said.

"What makes prison difficult is the company you keep and the complete lack of individual freedom. It's all the school bullies in one place but there's no home time."

On the night Wood was transferred from Auckland's Paremoremo prison to Rimutaka in Wellington, gang members and prospects kicked at his door, telling him, "we're going to get you tomorrow".

It's the standard welcome to prison life for any young, non-gang-affiliated criminal, said Wood, and young people often join gangs as soon as they get to prison, "to get a sense of protection". Offenders who spend time in prison have higher reoffending rates, according to the report, which partially blames this on prison culture. Wood agrees.

"If you take away the ability to make decisions, then you're not actually giving people the opportunity to take accountability for their actions.

"This is why people get institutionalised after coming out of long periods of imprisonment."

However, Garth McVicar, head of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, said higher reoffending rates weren't caused by the prison environment.

"You're putting the most hardened criminals in jail. When they get out, of course they are going to reoffend."

McVicar said that although some aspects of restorative justice could work with first-time youth offenders, most were using it to get discounts on sentences, and there was no genuine remorse.

Mike Matson, 28, was the victim of an attempted knifepoint robbery a few years ago, and believes restorative justice is a waste of time. A teenager was charged with threatening to kill, possession of a weapon and aggravated robbery but Matson wasn't interested in the restorative-justice process.

"It wasn't my neighbour or someone I was going to see again, so it didn't really bother me."

He said restorative justice wasn't as effective as prison in teaching offenders a lesson: "They're a criminal for a reason; if you don't punish them hard enough they won't reform."

Wood said he was helped, not because of prison but because of people he met in prison, and his father who supported him, and being able to find hope in education.

"Education changed my life. At one point I was in the drug punishment room, looking at all these examples of what my future could be like, and I came across Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken. Those last three lines ["Two roads diverged in a wood and I/I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference."] had a real impact on me to stop smoking weed, harden up and get out of prison with a degree."

In June 2012 he graduated with a PhD in psychology, becoming the first person in New Zealand to complete three degrees that were started in jail.

Wood attended a violence prevention group where the class was asked "what did you think the victim felt"?

"But there is nothing," he said, "as powerful as the experience of an actual face-to-face restorative justice meeting with a victim and being confronted with that pain.

"I was literate and became interested in education, and that was the road out. It's not going to be the road out for everyone. But things like restorative justice provide an opportunity for people to figure out if they want to be that person or whether they want to be someone different.

"I'm often considered the exception to the rule, and that should give us all pause for thought, because shouldn't I be the rule? Shouldn't I be what normally happens when people get out of prison - isn't that what we hope for as a society?"


Require the purposes of imprisonment to be tailored to each offender

Repeal the three-strikes law introduced in 2010

Establish a sentencing council, which would have community and governmental oversight.

* Wood funded his degree by taking out a student loan and his father covered the shortfall.

Sunday Star Times