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Book Review – Greg Newbold’s ‘The Problem of Prisons’

  • May 28th, 2007

No radio talkbacker or editorial letter writer should rant on prisons or parole before reading Newbold’s new text,  the second of two recent books that should be compulsory for them.

 Last year David Fraser’s “A Land fit for Criminals – An insider’s view of crime, punishment and justice in the UK” exposed and excoriated the humbug of 30 years of UK official deceit on criminal justice. Now Newbold lets the NZ facts speak for themselves – the epitaphs from “a graveyard of abandoned fads”. 

MPs should be ashamed to posture in Parliament on penal policy without reading it. Earnest lobbyists for more rehabilitation spending should first show their bookshop receipt. Priests should have to recite key passages before pontificating on restorative justice, or on prison conditions. 

Why is a plain language description of 120 years of penal practice and policy so vital?

Because Newbold lucidly shows the truth of the saying ‘those who do not know their history are condemned to repeat it’.

The book gives that sobering historical context.  One and a half centuries of hopes dashed, of sincere good will betrayed by the intractability of evildoers, should be humbling. That humility could transform a debate usually hijacked by high flown rhetoric, by cloud level intentions. Little in the corrections area has not been tried before, often many times.

Our supposedly more inhumane forebears seem to have done much better than us. If we judge on rehabilitation success today’s 86% reconviction rate proves that modern “prisons do not work”. That is nearly twice the rate of 50 years ago. Judging on the proper measure – the crime rate, our comparative failure is even more humiliating. On measures of decency we also fail. At the height of the prison farm and tree planting era most prisoners were doing useful work. Today the amount of “useful” work is negligible. Parole to work has all but vanished. Prison murders were unknown until recently. Drug addictions contracted in prison would have dumbfounded the Superintendents and warders of two generations ago (ignoring tobacco).

Official dogma still sees the criminal justice mission as therapy for sick souls. Newbold’s history shows both how enticing that goal has been for centuries, and how elusive. He records the failure of last decade’s fad – Integrated Offender Management with its “curative” courses. There’s no reason to think that this decade’s sacred cow – Tikanga Maori, will prove any better.

 Newbold offers no magic solutions. There are no crushing insights, no breakthroughs in psychology, and no statistical proofs of the superiority of his vision for prisons. If he has a vision it is well disguised.  He allows himself some modest pride in the achievements of Christchurch’s Salisbury St Foundation’s ‘habilitation’ centre or halfway house, and his role in the merited trashing of the 1989 Roper Committee of Inquiry’s loopy recommendations. But in this book his opinions are secondary.

While the progressives, the reformers, are of more interest to Newbold, he acknowledges the successes of the administrators he considers uninspired. Long boring periods under dour disciplinarian management, without riots, escapes and suicides, are a benchmark of success. 

Relative objectivity does not produce a passionless dry text. It is attractive, with many photographs and stuffed with stories.

Nor has academia suppressed the author’s normal human curiosity about the extreme and the bizarre. A whole chapter on the death penalty accepts our ghoulish interest in the detail, letting us know how prisoners and warders and even the hangman felt about execution.  Whipping and flogging are covered.

The book is astonishingly up to date, even predicting that Graeme Burton’s parole murder this year will influence current law changes.

There are faults. Organisation by topic rather than chronology leads to repetition. On the other hand, making each chapter self sufficient will help users who dip in for a topic.

Newbold does not forget his publisher’s need for sales. Professional jealousy will be the explanation if the book is not prescribed for criminology students across the land. It is extensively footnoted with a bibliography for every chapter.  ‘Key fact’ summaries should help the dawn cram before the exam.

I expect nevertheless little enthusiasm from some of Newbold’s academic competitors. Facts are irrelevant to their religion. Nothing can humble intellectuals who believe they’re anointed to show the moral inferiority of ordinary peoples’ intuitions. The message is unwelcome – that deterrence and retribution and protection are more important and achievable punishment aims than rehabilitation.

[Published in the DomPost around 30 April 2007]



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I couldn’t understand some parts of this article, but it sounds interesting…

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