Roger Sawkins, Queensland Regional Meeting
Changing the prison system by Tony Taylor (2011, The Religious Society of, Friends Quakers (Te Haahi Tuuhauwiri) in Aotearoa New Zealand 2011) paperback, 60 pages
This lecture was timely; in the previous week the New Zealand Government’s Finance Minister had described prisons as being a ‘moral and fiscal failure’ and had said that there would be ‘no more prisons built under his watch’. This was, of course, welcomed by Friends.
Tony Taylor, a member of Kapiti Monthly Meeting, has studied the Penal system in New Zealand for 60 years. He is a trained psychotherapist and is currently Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Victoria University in Wellington. His lecture is therefore a scholarly overview of the history of prisons in Britain, the US and New Zealand and the Quaker involvement in attempts to improve the system.
Tony points out that although large numbers of Quakers in sixteenth century England were imprisoned under appalling conditions, they were more concerned at the politician situation than with prison conditions themselves. It was not until 1790 that American Friend John Wistar formed the Philadelphia Society for Assisting Distressed Prisoners and only in the early 19th century that Elizabeth Fry took up her famous concern. James Backhouse and George Washington Walker made their investigation of the prison system and treatment of indigenous people in Australia in the 1830s, but like many other investigations their recommendations were largely ignored.
Whilst Elizabeth Fry’s involvement led to some improvements in conditions, they stalled in the middle of the century. Even the Gladstone Committee of 1895 and the well-publicised imprisonment of Oscar Wilde left the government unmoved and the 20th century witnessed little improvement.
Tony, rather depressingly, catalogues the attempts by various Quakers and others to improve the situation in the US and New Zealand. He discusses many official and unofficial enquiries which have shown the penal systems to be ineffective and inhumane but whose recommendations have been mostly ignored by successive governments. He then shows startling figures which indicate that New Zealand has had a sharply increasing rate of prisoners per head of the population and is now second only to the United States in the Western world. While Australia and the United Kingdom have about two-thirds of the New Zealand rate, they too have been increasing. Finland, Sweden and Norway have about one-third of the imprisonment rate of New Zealand but show no indications of higher crime rates.
In his conclusion, Tony calls for the New Zealand government to appoint an independent Penal Commission to advise the government on penal policy and do substantial work in improving the prison system.
Tony’s printed lecture is a valuable reference for studying the history of the prison systems and the depressing litany of government inaction, but it also provides some ideas for future campaigns and is an interesting read.
I leave you with his opening paragraph, with which I am sure all friends would agree:
Our prison system is immoral, anachronistic, financially bloated, repressive, and blind to humanitarian practices that have borne fruit in other countries in the so-called ‘developed’ world. It is trumpeted only by those who have a political agenda in pursuit of power, regardless of the various costs to the community and the exchequer. It is indeed overdue for a thorough shake-up.