As Labour’s Women’s Affairs Spokesperson I visited Arohata Women’s Prison with my colleague, Labour’s Justice Spokesperson Charles Chauvel, this afternoon. I have never been in any prison before in any capacity and I have to say the visit has really got me thinking.
I wasn’t sure what to expect but one thing I can say is that anyone who calls a prison a holiday camp or a luxury hotel has got it completely wrong. The facilities were basic and functional.
After a warm Maori welcome we were shown around the prison. The highlight was talking to a group of about twenty five women who are part of the prison’s Drug Treatment Unit (DTU). The DTU operates a therapeutic community model with a structured programme operating in a community environment with community expecations, community support and evalutions. Charles and I asked the women to tell us the things that would reduce the chances of them reoffending when they go back into the community and what things might have stopped them offending in the first instance.
I think the women were pleased and surprised to be asked these questions by MPs and I was really impressed with the answers. One area that stood out is that in Arohata the women have an opportunity to learn and to gain qualifications. This is clearly valued by the women -this was stated by both the inmates and the staff. They want to keep learning and to use that learning to get jobs and to help their children.
What is also obvious is the strong desire of the group to deal with their addictions. Arohata is the only women’s prison that operates a DTU and so many of the women have had to move away from Christchurch and Auckland women’s prisons and proximity to their families to take part in the programme. They clearly make the link between violence, drugs, alcohol and their offending.
The women who spoke clearly want to move forward, to get jobs and to get their children back. They want to be given a chance by employers. They are also worried about what support there will be once they leave Arohata.
Some things that were reinforced for me were:
- we need to focus on the causes of crime and not solely on punishment
- we especially need to consider whether imprisonment is the best response to all of the situations people are currently imprisoned for
- the need for drug treatment programmes in all our prisons and in the community
- the importance of life long learning opportunities, to name a few
Charles and I have committed to going back and continuing the conversation. We are intending to visit the other women’s prisons too.