Editorial: Support is needed to halt the conveyer belt to jail

Many prisoners struggle to make a life for themselves outside the fence and, without enough support, are soon back inside.
ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

Many prisoners struggle to make a life for themselves outside the fence and, without enough support, are soon back inside.

EDITORIAL: Steps to Freedom.

It's a government initiative whose title highlights a sobering irony of Pythonesque proportions.

For Daniel Johnson that freedom was fleeting and the steps made represented a sorry, well-trodden circle that began with the prison door swinging open and outwards and ended with it once more slamming shut behind him.

Johnson is a recidivist criminal. His latest transgression was a burglary committed just days after he was released from Auckland Prison. He's now back in familiar territory awaiting judgment for what could be his 76th prison sentence.

He claims his latest stint behind bars is the result of a lack of support on release. The number above would suggest otherwise, that he is a hardened criminal for whom offending has become practically muscle memory.

Sadly, however, Johnson is not alone and we would be wrong to dismiss his experience without attempting to learn from it.

The prison population grew by more than 25 per cent between 2006 and 2016, from 7324 to 9193. Over the same period, despite myriad initiatives, reoffending percentages have remained static. In 2015, 28 per cent of those freed were back in jail within a year, with the figure rising to 57 per cent after two years. Those numbers are even more alarming when you consider age, ethnicity and gang affiliation.

There are many reasons why that path to and from freedom is well-worn, but an important one appears to be the lack of support claimed by Johnson, which is backed up by his lawyer. 

Johnson left prison with $350 under the Steps to Freedom grant, but like many of the 15,000 people who get out of prison each year he had no identification and no bank account, undermining the normal steps we all take to get accommodation, jobs and access to everyday services.

All of this was exacerbated when he travelled to Wellington to live with his mum, only to find she was away at a tangi.

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A 2016 Salvation Army report, Beyond the Prison Gate, pointed out that prisoners being set free with a few dollars in their back-pocket and little else in terms of support is common.

Unfortunately that's just the start of the challenges they face.

Homelessness is also common, with access to much social and state housing cut off and market rents beyond many of them.

Just as elusive are jobs. In 2014-15, less than 30 per cent of people released from prison had found employment six months later. That was actually an improvement on barely 20 per cent four years earlier.

There are possible solutions, according to the Sallies. That 2016 report recommended that, among other things, every prisoner leaving be supported in applying for ID accepted by banks and other agencies; that they have access to stable accommodation for the next six months; and that public/private schemes be set up to help provide employment, if they have none.

Some may consider people like Daniel Johnson beyond help, unworthy of further support. But spare a thought for the first-timer and other, less-experienced criminals. A number of poor choices have set them on a path. With a little more support that need not be a cul-de-sac of incarceration.

That's got to be worth more than $350.

 - Wellington

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