Are we about to turn the corner with regard to how people leave our prisons?

Halden, the most humane prison in the world (Norway) / Shipping Container prison cells (New Zealand)

Halden, the most humane prison in the world (Norway) / Shipping Container prison cells (New Zealand)
This idea of comparison between Anglophone and Nordic cultural mindsets via images such as these is sourced from Pratt and Ericksson’s book discussed in this blog-piece.

I am sitting down to write, having gathered together all the things I have been reading and thinking about, with the intention of slowly unpacking them thoughtfully for the reader. But that noble plan is not going to work. So much has been going on in my world of books, news, and current affairs.

Of particular interest to me have been discussions about criminology and sociology, with a special interest in what happens when individuals are released from prison back into the community.

The gods were at play here. This week a friend was released from a New Zealand prison, and another person recalled to prison for allegedly breaking the conditions of his parole. Apparently he had not managed his release well.  The question in my mind is what we could have done to enable a better outcome. When a person is returned to prison, it is tempting to say the individual failed, it is their fault. But what role did we play in how things unfolded?

Why I go out of my way to disclose my friendships with these two men is because part of how crime and punishment works is the effort to discount the offender. This can be very subtle, and is always about how to encourage us to see such people as ‘them and not us’. One way of achieving this is to omit them from our personal narrative. We might even tell ourselves that if we do not mention where they have been, it will make it easier for them to fit in. All too often this silence has nothing to do with empathy. The keeping silent is really all about helping us manage our lives.

Last week I made two trips to Victoria University of Wellington. The first event centred on an academic from Vermont, USA; the second event was the launch of a book discussing two cultural cluster groupings – the Nordic group, and the Anglophone group which includes New Zealand. The book discusses  how these two groups manage crime and punishment. What struck me was how these two items – the seminar and the book launch – were linked.  I am talking about a growing disquiet about the expansion of prison populations, increased penalties, and strategies of exclusion.

The seminar was offered by Victoria University’s School of Social and Cultural Studies as part of its SACS Seminar Series. The presenter was Kathy Fox, Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Vermont (USA), currently a Fulbright Core Scholar. Kathy was hosted by the School of Social and Cultural Studies, and a New Zealand group called Rethinking Crime and Punishment. I had been alerted of her talk by the Howard League for Penal Reform. I am a member of its Wellington chapter.

The seminar topic, entitled “Offender Re-entry in the U.S.—Re-integrating communities to the process”, looked at the practice of mass incarceration in the U.S.  There has been rethinking regarding strategies around release.

Three models of the management of prisoner release were outlined: first was a Panel model (the one used most often in New Zealand, with the Probation Service offering oversight); second was the Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) model (explained in detail at the seminar); the third is a Mentor model (which offers broadly what the label suggests – use of a mentoring process for those re-entering the community).  These models can be compared using three issues – the support they offer the individual inmate; the kinds of civil engagement the model promotes; and the kind of social distance they give rise to.

When looking at support for the person being released the Panel model can be described as formal and concrete. In New Zealand that is one of the drawbacks of making the Probation Service  the overlord of the release process. It tends to put all the responsibility on the inmate and presents a very formal approach to how things are done. COSA is both more informal and social. Mentor  models tend to include features found in both the Panel and COSA models.

Civic engagement is important because it is this issue that the American experience has come to appreciate more fully. With the explosion of incarceration in the past decade, a question left open is “what role does society play?” Simply stated, it is society that puts people in prison (a process of removing them from society) and it needs to be that same society who is central to their re-entry.  For countries like NZ, it is the offender who must cooperate with a highly prescribed process – you do what we tell you to do. The COSA model offers messages to the offender; in this approach however, they are mediated by a process of demonstration by community members. The inmate is invited to join others rather than just perform prescribed actions. The Mentor model tends combines aspects of both the Panel and the COSA models.

Social distance is much different when looking at each of these three models. The greatest distance between the inmate and the society he or she is re-entering is found in the Panel model, the least distance is offered by the COSA model. The Mentor model can be described as moderate in this aspect. What was interesting at the discussion phase of the seminar was how all the people in the room were in agreement for a cultural shift to take place regarding punishment and re-entry into society there is a need to close this social distance. One comment offered, and it is the profound riddle in this area, is “How to you restore a person to a society which they never felt they belonged to in the first place?” The exclusionary social practices societies put in place and sustain have a lot to do with how crime happens in the first place. It can seem paradoxical to talk of re-entry for some who find themselves inside our prisons.

A profile that has this feel of the ‘excluded ones’ that is well known to people who work with prisons and study the topics of criminology in western societies and cultures is the sex offender. The COSA model, with its less punitive style, has been born because of the growing numbers of these people inside our prisons. There is an irony here, that the very existence of this negative social profile had given birth to its opposite – a call to be more human, more inclusive.

I argue here that the push to place the sex offender to the outer edges of society has a cost.  That move ultimately will prove to be both unwise as well as unjust. Interestingly the political faction who may well lead the way, who are most likely to want change, are precisely those groups who are concerned about financial cost. To not change how we run prisons and promote punishment, to keep going the way we are now, will be very expensive, possibly excessively so.  In New Zealand we have a National Party as our government. Although they offer up a politically conservative face, they are genuinely concerned for costs, they want change in how New Zealand prisons are run. The question that springs from this observation is, when the economic debt problems go away, will this mean those political perspectives will again follow the wallet and allow a return to a commitment to punishment, incarceration, and social exclusion?

The book launch offered  “Contrasts in Punishment: An explanation of Anglophone excess and Nordic exceptionalism”.  The two authors are a New Zealand academic who has a global profile for his work on criminology – John Pratt, Prof. of Criminology at Victoria University, New Zealand, and Anna Ericksson, Senior Lecture in Criminology at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. The event offered three papers, all of which acknowledged of the punitive explosion that is global, posing the question – what does this mean for society and culture, and how best can it be explained?

The book, and indeed the papers offered at the book launch, deserves a post on my blog-site that stands alone. I have decided to combine things and put up the information now because time moves on. To delay would be a mistake. Both the seminar and the book launch showed a social mood or perspective is present, at least where I am. That mood, expressed in what is being argued at sites like Victoria University, suggests both an acknowledgement punitive attitudes and social practices are present inside societies and cultures such as America, New Zealand, England (the Anglophone cluster), and second that its opposite is also now being put forward – there is a call to rethink the punitive and exclusory actions that have contributed to swelling numbers in our prisons.

Emeritus Prof. David Brown was the first speaker at the launch, and I will close this blog post with a couple of his comments. More may well be offered later. David Brown pointed out how Pratt and Ericksson saw differences in how prisons are being run, despite the strength of the punitive swing in recent times. It is not valid to see everywhere as the same. To paraphrase what was offered by Prof. Brown, things are not rooted in some doxa of neo-liberalsim sweeping everything before it; nor is this some inherent punitive human nature working itself out – some Kantian universal requirement for punishment, or a species-driven behaviour to inflict as much harm as can be done on those you dislike. Things are not everywhere the same, and very significantly, things can be done differently, choice is not an illusion.

Pratt and Ericksson’s book asks, “What is it in the two cultural clusters (first Nordic countries and second Anglophone) that can accounts for their very different ways of thinking about punishment?” The focus is to look at the production of cultural difference for each cluster. Left open is the issue of cultural change – if one decides change needs to happen in the management of prisons, how to go about that? Both the seminar and the book launch presented this as an important question to be explored.

New Zealand is one nation with different cultures. At a political level New Zealand is bi-cultural. This is rooted firmly in how the country was founded, the document that gives witness to that is the Treaty of Waitangi (a formal agreement between two parties – the Pakeha and the Maori tribes). At the same time New Zealand society is multi-cultural, evident if one looks at recent statistics as to who lives here, who attends our schools and universities, how many overseas workers are part of our workforce. It is not accurate to label New Zealand as wholly Anglophone because of this, although clearly the fact our law is based on British law shows the linkages are strong.

The cultural groups in New Zealand who are neither Anglophone nor Nordic (Maori, Pacifica, Asian) may well facilitate a social practice that, in the near future, may be different from what we have now regarding the management of our prisons. For example the thinking used in the COSA model seems very similar to the perspectives that are already present in some of these groups. New Zealand’s management of our prisons has led to increases in incarceration, a feature also found in America. If culture does shape how prisons are run can we change ourselves. There is no evidence change has to happen so that prison numbers go down. What this past week offered me, via the seminar and the book launch, was the suggestion change might be on the table. I hope it is more than just a flash in the pan, what is sometimes referred to as a Prague spring.


Pratt, J. (2012). Contrasts in punishment :an explanation of Anglophone excess and Nordic exceptionalism /John Pratt and Anna Eriksson. New York, NY Routledge.

Fox, K. (2013). Offender Re-entry in the U.S.—Re-integrating communities to the process SACS Seminar Series. Seminar presentation. School of Social and Cultural Studies. Victoria University.


Just what are we capable of doing to each other?

Here is the title and link to a text offered up to us by The San Diego Free Press:

Sex in San Diego: Are Some Men Born Pedophiles? New Science Says Yes, But Sexologists Say Not So Fast

March 13, 2013

By Steven Rosenfeld


“I would not want to tell the scientific community to stop its endless journey where who and what we are a part of what unfolds. Second the contribution of other bodies of knowledge also plays a role – the humanities are a rich source of knowledge, and yes at times, wisdom. My thoughts offer up to me various futures, some that scare me deeply.

What if future societies and cultures decide that to be gay or lesbian is ‘unwanted’ and bad, a view that has lived amongst us before, and science offers that future society the chance to make us, literally determine us, to all be heterosexual? Is that really what we want? (In some African settings today women viewed as lesbians are attacked and raped, believing such actions will achieve just this outcome of forcing those women to become heterosexual. This violent attack on them is spoken of as ‘corrective rape’).

How is the erasure of the pedophile any different? (Some of us view pedophilia as a sexual orientation, and that view has ethical consequences). We don’t ‘discover’ stigma, we make it happen. Sexual differences amongst us are not about some people being hard-wired to be morally bad, and others hard-wired to be good. I ask myself this question, just what are we willing to do to each other, given the chance?”

Stigma and the pedophile, surely it’s more than just opinion and morality!

The last post on this site looked at how a person accused of assaulting his daughter had decided to not appear before a New Zealand court. The focus of that post was how New Zealand courts perform, and how they are viewed when dealing with such allegations. This post looks at a very different issue – social stigma for those socially ‘positioned’ as child abusers.

While working on a post-graduate diploma in Arts at Victoria University, I had an informal conversation with one of the teaching staff. She commented on my use of the term pedophile, “These days articles don’t refer to pedophiles, they talk of child abusers.”

In this post the lecturer’s comment is taken at face value. At the same time it needs to be acknowledged there are different discourses: sociological, criminological, psychological, media studies, and so on. The discussion here is intended to show how a care about how one speaks and a look at how others use words can be helpful. What is offered in this post offers a possible structure and process that language can demonstrate. Academic discourses can be subdivided into subcategories and even subcultures. One such subcategory and subculture is referred to as “victimological sociology”. If the woman’s comments are located inside that subculture, then what she refers to may well reflect what has been happening over the past twenty years.

For example, the way some authors use the term child abuser rather than pedophile shows how stigma can shift in terms of what it purports to offer. Stigma often begins by constructing a profile of an individual or group on the basis of opinions, and moral judgements. Eventually what is offered up seeks a more solid, more ‘factual’ quality. This process or set of moves is offered up inside the comments of the university lecturer. The term pedophile as it is used today has a history and it is one of profound social stigma – the individual so labelled is socially positioned in a strongly negative way. The individual, indeed the entire group, is discounted – they do not belong to the normals. That this is constructed with strong opinions and moral views is not unknown to a reader. However the introduction of the term child abuser evokes the extensive social, political, and academic discourses about abuse, child safety, and harm done to children, linked to a further discourse – rape and the feminist claim to be our current expert on trauma.

The move to the term child abuser from that of pedophile is a significant shift. A character of the child abuse discourse is its claim to be based in research and scientific enquiry. By calling the pedophile the child abuser what happens is the moral and opinion aspects drop below the radar, strengthening the notion that this profile is based inside what science has to tell us.

In this way, ideology and morality morph and lay claim to a place inside scientific discourse. This situation can be managed: it is the task of a critical thinker, and a good scientist, to keep ideology and morality in a position where such confusion does not take place.

To hold a moral view is perfectly valid. It is important however those moral views do not end up hiding inside scientific discourse as if they are not there, and this is equally important when looking at ideology. Both are part of how ideas and social practices are shaped. But they can seek to be invisible and thus go unexamined and unacknowledged. (For readers interested in the subject of ideology and how it functions, a text to explore is Louis Althusser’s book, For Marx.)

Some see religion as less central, that secular thought is normative, and in some ways that shift has happened. In the same way some see ideology as less a part of who we are – that in a better educated and more aware phase of social history we are less easily captured by political groups, less willing to just follow the leader. The political rhetoric of Hitler’s 1930/40s Germany and McCarthy’s 1950s America seem crude and unconvincing. I argue it would be foolish to become too confident that morality and ideology are dead – far from it. At the same time, I wouldn’t argue for either morality or ideology to be ‘taken out’ or ‘dumped’.

Nor is it the focus of this post to enter into long discussions about what is morality, what is ideology, and what is science. These terms are not interchangeable, not simply the same thing presented to us in different clothing.

Socially and culturally we have come to view science as a template for truth. Western culture has changed the way ideas and claims about what is true and what is false are managed. (An interesting text on this topic is Fearless Speech, based on lectures Michel Foucault offered at the University of California at Berkeley in the Fall Term of 1983 – its focus is not so much a discussion of the problem of truth, but with the problems that face the truth-teller, or of truth-telling as an activity.)

In the media and in public debate views are often offered up to us as scientific. That is significant because it is seen as a marker. To see an idea or argument as scientific says something about its validity. The position science has gained inside Western culture has a history, and one should keep a critical eye on the process by which science sustains this status. I want that feature to be noted, and I am interested in developing this point in a later post.

In my view it is a mistake – and dangerous – in academic writing to refer to the pedophile as the sex abuser. It is a lazy way of writing about those whose sexual orientation would be better termed minor-attracted persons. This problem of lazy thought does not go away if one then says, oh I am only talking about those adults who have had sexual contacts with the young. There is a temptation to form two separate groups: first, the person who has no sexual contact with youths; second, those who have. This division, while seductive, is unhelpful.

Individuals in this second group find themselves subject to the full force of the law and all the social stigma that can be evoked and applied. Currently we seem to suffer from far too much interest in punishment and far too little interest in understand just what it is we are drawn into when we discuss pedophilia and the sexual abuse of children.

When we allow morality and ideology to hide inside science we allow a highly emotive and morally driven set of views to appear to make things more clear; when in reality the lives of many adults and children are misrepresented and adversely affected. I am, as the reader will no doubt recognise, speaking of another topic on which to post. In recent times Western cultures and societies have been more willing to seek a moral perspective on what is happening, just as science has grown in its role as definer of how to speak the truth. Morality is in no real danger of ‘disappearing’.

It is important to notice how morality and ideology hide inside science. Seeing this strengthens a critical approach when it comes to the difficult and often loaded situation where what is being talked about is not only a person who is minor-attracted (pedophile) but a person who has also given expression to that sexuality and sexual orientation.

In a discussion of a person who is minor-attracted one wants to discuss sexuality and profile issues, their social position and how they can own who they are. To label them child abusers will not take us forward in terms of political, social, and academic discussion. As is so often the case, the court room may well allow us to answer the question, has a person broken the law. It may not however lead us to a very deep view, or allow for a very satisfying understand of who this person is. We need to ask what kind of life they can lead inside a society and culture that they and everybody else can see as ethical, responsible, and fulfilling.

In 2007 Umberto Eco published his book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. I recall an interview on the radio where Eco said he had nothing against progress, what worried him most about modernity was that he saw people “marching lockstep into the future.”

Since the close of the Second World War we have seen authors speak of a concern about the return of fascism. In the book Nineteen Eighty-Four we see this message offered up by George Orwell. In that text the issue was largely fascism from above – a bonding/nationalism that is characterised by violent political leadership; what seems to be a new threat at our time is what I would call fascism from below – a bonding/species-ism (seriously misguided notion of what forms the basis of our fears). This is a kind of ‘arm-linking’ exercise that movements like the child sex abuse industry deploy that has the feel of producing that ‘lockstep march into the future’ that Eco talked about as so dangerous. I join Orwell and Eco in saying think, question, take a risk!

■ Althusser, L. (2005). For Marx (B. Brewster, Trans.). London and New York: Verso.
■ Eco, U. (2007). Turning back the clock: hot wars and media populism. Orlando: Harcourt.
■ Foucault, M. (2001). Fearless Speech. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), Distributed by MIT Press.
■ Goffman, E. (1986). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.
■ Koubaridis, A. (2013, 1 Febuary). Court slip up led to escape, The New Zealand Herald.
■ Orwell, G. (1950, July 31). Signet Classics Paperback. Vol. No. 6: 1984/Nineteen Eighty-Four [Afterwood by Erich Fromm] (p. 336). New York, N.Y.: Signet Book.