Tracey McIntosh, Professor of Indigenous Studies and co-head of Te Wānanga o Waipapa (School of Māori Studies and Pacific Studies) at the University of Auckland. (Photo: Dean Carruthers)

Professor Tracey McIntosh has been visiting the women’s prison in Wiri, Auckland, for more than a decade. Talking to the women inside has convinced her we must be brave enough to think about a justice system with no jails.


If I ask you to imagine a world without prisons, most of you would dismiss me as a naïve optimist.

For more than a decade, I’ve been a regular visitor to the Auckland Regional Woman’s Correctional Facility at Wiri. Before Covid, I visited every week.

I’ve been privileged to learn and get an education in several places — and those who’ve taught me the most, and shared their insights and expertise most generously, have been the wāhine I’ve met behind the wire.

I’ve encountered women who have survived things that many of us would think were unsurvivable. Some have not only endured different forms of social harm but have then gone on to perpetrate harm on others. Others have gone on to use violence as a means of resisting their own further victimisation.

For too many, their first time in prison isn’t their first experience of incarceration. Some may have as many as 10 people in their immediate family who’ve been in prison before them. Some have other family members in prison at the same time they’re there. Under these conditions, prison can feel like their destiny.

This is work where you can become overcome with a sense of hopelessness.

But, as a sociologist, my job is to use critical social science to reflect on entrenched social constructs and the narratives that surround them, and to think about our ability to change them. And I’ve long been convinced that we must envisage and work towards the end of prisons.

A noted criminologist once remarked that, short of major wars, mass incarceration has been the most thoroughly implemented government social programme of our time. The warehousing of surplus humanity in prisons — and the ongoing incarceration of Māori in particular — is a crisis that has resulted in an unjust society where the shadow of the prison colonises our landscapes.

For far too many people, especially our children, it colonises their future.

Many of us can recite the statistics that demonstrate that Māori are over-represented at every stage of the criminal justice system — for instance, that Māori make up more than 50 percent of the prison population, and wāhine Māori well over 60 percent of the women’s prison population. These are some of the most well-known social statistics in this country.

I take it as a given that we can recognise the devastation these statistics represent  in the life of whānau and communities; that we can recognise how having a mother in prison has an immediate, severe, and persistent impact on a child.

But what I want to examine here is why prisons are considered so natural that it seems preposterous to imagine life without them.

In many ways, this is because the existence of prisons is seen solely within a crime and punishment framework. We’ve come to accept as a self-evident truth the claim that an increase in incarceration is linked to the level of criminality in our society. This makes it possible for us to see our present practice as a matter of rational accounting.

Yet, the evidence is troubling. Even during times when there has been a sustained decline in crime rates, we’ve seen prison populations soar.

Of course, many see increases of prison populations as evidence of a successful war on crime. But the imprisonment rate is not a measure of crime reduction. There is no correlation anywhere in the world between the imprisonment rate and the crime rate. Our incarceration rate, as Kim Workman has reminded us, is a measure of the consumption of punishment.

Historically, New Zealand doesn’t just have a tolerance for having a high incarceration rate — we’ve had an enthusiasm for it, though there are indicators that this is beginning to change.

We struggle to imagine our social landscape without prisons. They relieve us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the structural problems of our society — especially those produced by racism, poverty, colonial and legislative violence, and the slow violence inflicted by a system that frustrates the aspirations of people at both an individual and collective level.

Prisons also, paradoxically, render victims invisible. In our current system, the rights and needs of victims are extinguished. Victims speak of a system that retraumatises them and limits their voice in proceedings. Protection and redress for victims isn’t central to criminal justice outcomes.

Our current system is neither victim-centred nor offender-centred. It is punishment-centred. It fails to address the harm for victims, and, as our high recidivism rates show, it fails to rehabilitate those who harm. And this failure results in further harm and more victims.

There’s a thought exercise we can do where we ask ourselves to imagine being in prison. How do you see yourself? What are you experiencing? How do you feel?

And we’ve found that most of us tend to picture ourselves as the prisoner. Our imaginations falter at the thought that, societally, collectively, we could be the prison guard who is capable of meting out punishment.

So, is it possible to imagine a life without prison? I believe the answer is “yes”, but it requires a shift in thinking. As Linda Tuhiwai Smith has said, rather than being paralysed by the weight of our negative social indicators, we must seek the pursuit of the possible.

The prison system is not a part of our natural world. It’s a part of our social world. It is socially constructed. And just as it has been made, so it can be unmade.

Our ability to think beyond the prison — or even to think there is any “beyond” beyond the prison — is limited by what we’ve come to regard as an unchangeable and fixed reality. This is the world we know, and we can’t imagine it any other way.

But it would be difficult to think of any major social transformation in the history of humanity that wasn’t regarded as unrealistic, delusional, or naively utopian by the large majority even a few years before what was once unthinkable became a reality.

Those once unfathomable historical transformations include the abolition of slavery, the end of the British Empire, the end of the Cold War, the deconstruction of apartheid, and the embrace of marriage equality around the world.

Right up until these things happened, people believed they couldn’t happen.

Prisons hold a moral and a symbolic role. They reflect the state of the world in which we live. They are architectures of control and one of the clearest expressions of state power. But we can disrupt this reality if we recognise that prisons are powerful social institutions that have been made, and which can therefore be unmade.

Of course, it needs to be clearly understood that our problems won’t be addressed if we just closed the prisons tomorrow and did nothing more. Abolition must be understood as a project of decarceration.

Decarceration doesn’t seek to replace prisons with closely-related alternatives — such as punitive policing, non-custodial criminal supervision, extended life-course probation, civil institutionalisation and community confinement. It doesn’t seek to disperse the role of prisons into the day-to-day lives of the community.

Rather, it draws on different legal, social, and institutional regulatory forms to replace present systems that retaliate rather than heal and reintegrate. This requires different types of social regulation and societal empowerment. It requires the redistribution of power, including resourcing, to Māori and to our communities.

Thinking about prison abolition is thinking about how we create the conditions for a just society.

Preventive justice offers a substitute framework and expands social projects to prevent the need for responses involving prison. It decriminalises less serious infractions.

It includes drug reform and the moving of resources into therapeutic responses for those with mental health disorders.

It includes improving urban and rural design to reduce offending and allow greater levels of human flourishing. Redeveloping and greening urban spaces. Creating spaces of public beauty in marginalised areas. Focusing on public works for tamariki.

It includes expanding transformative justice and restorative forms of redress and creating places of collective security for individuals who are at risk of, or escaping from, violence. It means finding alternative livelihoods for people who’ve been subject to criminal law enforcement.

It means efforts to confront the school-to-prison pipeline by eliminating zero tolerance policies that turn children who misbehave in school over to punitive systems — or, more commonly, just exclude them from education and offer no other meaningful forms of engagement. This is a significant measure that needs to be taken, particularly in rural and deprived urban areas.

These institutional alternatives require meaningful reinvestment in justice to strengthen the social arm of the communities and improve human welfare. It means ensuring that more people can have trust in the world.

In New Zealand, we spend more than one billion dollars a year on custodial services — ultimately, to lock people up. Those resources could be invested in these other sectors, so that we gradually but ultimately render prisons obsolete. We would end the use of imprisonment as the primary means of addressing what are social, economic, and political problems.

Changes along these lines allow us to tackle structural violence. They require us to confront the devastating legacies of racism and colonialism with a deep, profound, radical honesty.

Rather than relying on correctional experts and administrative criminologists, the focus becomes issues of limited opportunities, unemployment, marginalisation and poverty.

One of the things that reinforces the validity of the prison is the idea that prisons are full of perpetrators and society is full of victims.

We all live very complex lives and have a whole range of contradictions that we manage within ourselves — but, at a societal level, there’s a desire to have a clearly defined set of victims and a clearly defined set of offenders.

Yet, the evidence is clear that there is huge overlap between the two groups.

For example, if we look at incarcerated women, we see a group with an incredibly high victimisation profile. From a very early age, they’ve often suffered from violence, including sexual violence. We also know that sexual violence is significantly under-reported.

So, what does this tell us about prisons and about society?

It tells us that we can’t have confidence that all people in prison are only perpetrators. And we can’t have confidence that people who have perpetrated violence are all held in prison. This means that we’re not addressing the very significant harms that continue in our communities.

Given this, we can see prisons as a societal moral failure.

I call it a fully-funded failure because the economic consequences of failing to address the moral issues are huge, too. There’s a real resistance to looking at alternative methods to incarceration because of the idea that these might be too soft or too costly.

We must be clear that the changes I’m talking about come with significant economic costs, too. But the status quo is incredibly costly. We continue, year-in and year-out, to put a significant investment into failure.

Our ability to forget about prisons and the people who inhabit them comes from the difficulty of imagining a social order that doesn’t rely on the threat of taking people away from their communities and families.

The operating mechanism of a prison is coercive control. If we think about coercive control in our personal relationships, we know what it produces, and we need to replace that with positive social regulation and integration.

We can pursue the possible. It’s within our power to create a just society where social harm is diminished, where community safety and collective security is enhanced, and where victims and perpetrators are not constantly reproduced.

I know this because the wāhine that I work with are experts on their own condition. They have incredibly deep and nuanced knowledge of the many forms of violence. Their expertise and knowledge could, and should, shape the solutions.

But for any of this to happen, it must first be an act of our imagination.


Tracey McIntosh (Ngāi Tūhoe) is Professor of Indigenous Studies and co-head of Te Wānanga o Waipapa (School of Māori Studies and Pacific Studies) at the University of Auckland. She was the former co-director of Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence. She previously taught in the sociology and criminology programme at the University of Auckland. She is a Commissioner of Te Kāhui Tūtari Ture: Criminal Cases Review Committee. You can see her speak about her work here.

As told to Connie Buchanan. This piece was made possible by NZ On Air through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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