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Community Responsibilities
In Relation To Prisons

Dorothy - 18/6/99

The job of the prison system is not just to punish prisoners by keeping them locked away from the community: it is to prepare them to return to society.

Cecelia Lashlie, Manager of the Christchurch Women's Prison, speaks out.

'Community Responsibilities in Relation to Prisons' was the title given to a recent talk by Cecelia Lashlie, Manager of the Christchurch Women's Prison. I was so impressed by what she had to say that I want to share some of her ideas with our readers.

She began by outlining her fourteen year career in the Prison Service including work as an officer in a men's prison, as Equal Employment Opportunities Coordinator and a Prison Inspector before becoming Manager of the Women's Prison located in Christchurch.

She is speaking to groups in an attempt to raise awareness of the issues needing to be debated between the community and prison management.

Increasing numbers of prisoners
At present there are approximately 5,500 men and 250 women in New Zealand prisons and with steadily increasing numbers in prison we are heading to crisis point. New prisons are being planned, but there is a danger that when they are built, the numbers will have increased so much that they will be filled and the old unsuitable buildings will be retained as well.

Tougher punishments needed?
The right wing view is that increasing punishment is the answer to the problem of crime. Longer sentences and harder work is believed to be the answer. Will that fit them for a return to normal life when they are ultimately released? Ces gave us insight into the real needs of the prisoners.

Rehabilitation essential
Time in prison, Ces firmly believes, should not just be a time of punishment, but a time of preparation for return to the community and a new start, a time for the healing of wounds so people can move forward and make changes to their lives.

One of the problems with the prisoners is that they have a sense of worthlessness. They lose all freedom of movement and the chance to make decisions for themselves. They have to submit to being strip-searched regularly in case drugs or weapons are being hidden on their person. They have to submit to being locked up until the authorities choose to open the doors.

The job of the prison staff is to teach them that they have worth and can succeed. The truly evil people among the prisoners are a small minority.

Problems often begin at home
The early lives of many of many women prisoners have severely disadvantaged them. One woman was taught from the age of eight to inject herself with drugs so that when her father injected himself she could do the same and not be aware enough to need care while he was beyond giving it. Others have been made to enter prostitution from the age of thirteen or fourteen. >From birth they have had little choice.

Where many young people learn good moral values and a sense of responsibility from their parents and grandparents many of the prisoners have learnt manipulation and drug usage and abuse of the police as pigs. Whole families have watched drug dealing take place.

Many women thwarted all their lives
Many of the female prisoners have never been given what they wanted, never been treated as individuals. The pattern of their lives has been to be thwarted in any desires and to be given the treatment they fear or hate. In many cases it is a miracle they are still alive.

They have learnt manipulation for self-preservation. Once in prison they have to be taught that they can trust the staff - that fair treatment is the norm among many people, not the exception, and that abuse doesn't have to be a component of their lives.

Many of the women have become pregnant at sixteen and been glad about it as they believed that at last with a baby they would have someone of their own to love and someone to love them unconditionally. The reality of the problems of parenting, of responsibility for which they aren't ready, and of coping financially are only realised later, and often the children suffer the results of the mother's frustration.

Prison their first safe place
Many of the women have been used to constant violence and their bedrooms being invaded. They have lived looking over their shoulders in the hope of seeing trouble early and so escaping violence. For them prison is the only safe place they have known. They feel safe but worthless. After a time of adjustment many women at last feel able to face issues in their own lives and make some changes.

Questioning and making choices
It is in the nature of women to question things. In prison they have the right to ask questions, sometimes for the first time, and it is a right they use to the full. They question everything far more than male prisoners do. The reasons that they come to prison are different and the impact of imprisonment is different, and this is an issue currently being grappled with by the Department.

Ces is forced to be hard and stick to her decisions, but she is always fair. Her message is, "These are the rules, you have a choice about obeying them, and you know the consequences if you don't." It is important that the women begin to realise that they have some control, even if over only small things.

Media highlight the problems of the system.
The media place great emphasis on every prison escaper. They say nothing about the others - nearly six thousand - who are held securely 365 days a year. On rare occasions an escape may be due to officers' inefficiency, but most prisoners are carefully supervised.

Risk management the prison's business
However the process of teaching prisoners some independence before release has to involve some risks. Recently some women walked away from a parenting course in the city. They were caught and they had consequences to face in the loss of privileges, but that is part of the learning experience. Prison management must be given the opportunity to manage the risk according to the information they have, not according the uninformed public's perception of what should happen.

Offending over several generations
Often offenders have come from a family of offenders over several generations. In working towards a turn around for the women, Ces points out that it could mean that the offending stops at the mother's generation instead of continuing with the children. Those working to change the pattern within Christchurch Women's Prison include a nurse, a social worker, and teachers of life skills. A holistic approach is taken.

Growth through drama
Two years ago Jim Moriarty led a team who worked at the prison for three months developing a drama based on their own experiences. It was called Kia Maumahara (Let us remember), and was part of the 1997 Christchurch Arts Festival.

This proved to be a moving and educating experience for the audience, but more importantly it helped those involved to face their own issues and to rebuild their self esteem.

In July as part of the Christchurch Arts Festival another drama will be staged - Watea (Pathways to Freedom).

A socio-economic bias
Ces considers that the justice system has a socio-economic bias. Young people in the cells are more likely to be released if an educated and articulate family member comes to the police station and is prepared to take some responsibility for keeping them out of further trouble. If the parents called to the station are poorly dressed and unable to state their position clearly the chances of a release are poor. If the family has a record of law-breaking, the young person is almost certain to be kept in custody.

Don't be too quick to advocate harsh treatment for "them".
People out in the community are quick to condemn the prisoners and the prison system and to agitate for tougher sentences. These people would do well to pause and remember that it may be one of their own family who becomes involved at any time, and the parents' good grooming and clear communication and money to pay a good lawyer may still not be enough to secure their freedom. Would they then advocate longer sentences and more hard labour? Or would they then advocate more emphasis on rehabilitation?

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