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.


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