Mike Williams is Labour ex-president and a staunch party supporter. He is now CEO of the Howard League and is a staunch promoter of penal reform.
In an unlikely alliance he has joined with ACT MP David Seymour in suggesting a policy that should improve dire prisoner literacy rates and potentially improve the prospects of ex prisoners and reduce recidivism.
And Seymour’s suggestions have also got some support from Prime Minister Bill English and from Labour’s Justice spokesperson Kelvin Davis. Whether Seymour retains his Epsom electorate or not this year, and whoever forms the next government, it would be good to see his policy make some progress.
Williams writes: Literacy leap for prisoners. Some background:
Howard League president Tony Gibbs and I have been running a long-term programme of raising awareness about the inability of a majority of prisoners to read and write sufficiently well enough to function as a normal human in modern society.
To this end we have been inviting politicians and other influential public figures to attend our Howard League prisoner literacy graduation ceremonies.
Many of our political leaders have never visited a jail or talked to a prisoner and most have no concept of the malign results of illiteracy.
Last year we had a graduation at Rimutaka jail and were very fortunate to attract Bill English, then deputy prime minister, as guest speaker.
Tony Gibbs has known former Act party president John Thompson for many years and through this connection, we also invited David Seymour, the sole Act party MP.
The Seymour experience:
At the Rimutaka graduation he chatted with a number of prisoner graduates and talked to the tutors who were there to see their students get their certificates.
Rimutaka jail is one of New Zealand’s largest prisons and can accommodate more that 1000 inmates, and David Seymour asked me why, if two-thirds of the men there were statistically likely to be illiterate, were we graduating only eight prisoners.
One answer to this question is that many prisoners have such negative self-images that they do not seek to improve themselves when there appears to be no reward for doing so.
The Seymour response:
David Seymour suggested that if prisoners were offered a discount on their sentences this might be the circuit breaker that not only inspired prisoners to get the basic skills needed to get work and “go straight” on release, it might eventually reduce prisoner numbers and start addressing the serious overcrowding problem that bedevils our jails.
These thoughts plus a lot of research turned into a new Act party policy which Seymour announced at the conference I attended.
He said: “It’s called Rewarding Self-Improvement in Prisons. This proposal would provide incentives, in the form of reduced sentences, for prisoners to complete basic programmes in literacy, numeracy, and driver licensing.
“Those prisoners who are already functionally literate, numerate, and licensed to drive, can still benefit from Act’s policy. They would earn credits for training as a mentor, and then teaching other prisoners.”
Seymour didn’t just learn from his prison visit, he researched solutions and looked for success with similar approaches overseas:
In the US, states that have Earned Credit Programs in prisons report a lower recidivism rate than states that do not have one. New York saw a 20 per cent lower recidivism rate among prisoners who earned early-release.”
Such a strategy is also likely to be financially attractive as David Seymour went on to point out.
“They save money. A model student serving a two-year sentence could, under Act’s proposal, shave 12 weeks off their sentence and save the taxpayer $14,000. And if their learning prevents future imprisonment, the saving could enter the $100,000s, which could be reinvested in educational programmes.
“And that’s just for one prisoner.
“The New York Corrections Department saved $369 million in a decade thanks to their earned credit policy. A proportionate saving for New Zealand’s population would be $113m for Corrections.
“The savings would be far higher if you include individuals, families, and businesses that would no longer have to face the costs of crime.”
The Prime Minister said that it was worth considering and Kelvin Davis MP endorsed the idea on behalf of the Labour Party. Even the “tough on crime” Sensible Sentencing Trust supported the policy.
This amounts to a great leap ahead and a triumph for common sense.
It’s also a good example of how politics can work positively in a non-partisan way.
But why has it taken so long? Peter Dunne issued this media statement in 2006: Literacy another failure for Corrections
United Future leader Peter Dunne has called on the Government to address the issue of illiteracy amongst New Zealand’s prison population.
“One of the most effective ways of preventing inmates from re-offending is to teach them the necessary skills to get a job and make a contribution to society when they get out. That is a hard thing to do if they lack the most basic literacy requirements.”
Literacy education is provided within prisons; however only if a prisoner is motivated enough to address their own illiteracy issue can that prisoner be referred for literacy tuition.
The larger parties are unlikely to make addressing prisoner illiteracy a priority, so it may take an election win for Seymour and some vigorous lobbying to get some progress on his proposal.
ACT could make it a bottom line for supporting a National led government again – and National should be receptive to accommodating the policy.
If Labour lead the next Government it may take some pushing from Seymour and some help from Davis.