OPINION: If I had to pinpoint an issue that consistently strikes fear deep into the heart of the everyday New Zealanders, I would immediately single out the rise and rise of methamphetamine and the long tail of social destruction that it is leaving in its wake.
Methamphetamine has become New Zealanders' drug of choice and with that dubious honour has come all the associated trimmings: intergenerational cycles of crime and violence, highly dysfunctional social behaviour appearing in younger and younger New Zealanders, and spiralling levels of prisoner population growth.
This last point in particular has caught the attention of the media in recent times and quite rightly so because when you delve deeper into the headline growth rates, you discover that we are sending women to prison in record numbers.
In fact, the growth rates for New Zealand’s female prisoner population has outstripped that of males by a country mile. The Department of Corrections data reveals that during the last five years, the female prison population has more than doubled in size while the male population has only grown by 19%.
And while it’s no comfort at all, it appears that we are not alone. All over the world we are seeing this very same trend play out with female prison populations growing by 50% over the last 15 years relative to male population growth rates which weigh in at 18%.
So, what’s driving this influx? There is reasonably unanimous support across the world for drugs being the key driver and perhaps not, as Police Commissioner Mike Bush suggested in his recent briefing to MPs in Parliament, being somewhat fuelled by people chasing after notoriety on social media.
I decided to put that very question to a panel of RAW women who between them have notched up 50 years behind bars and are therefore more than qualified to offer some insight into this societal challenge.
The results made perfect sense.
In a nutshell, there seem to be two clear trends playing out for women who are immersed in the underworld.
The first is that the creation and supply of methamphetamine is an relatively easy world to infiltrate and it’s providing many of these women with an extremely financially rewarding home-based business. Who would have thought that methamphetamine would create the next wave of micropreneurs or mumpreneurs?
Many of these women are attempting to raise their children and finance a household in a world where their legal options are limited. An opportunity that allows them to remain at home, generate immediate and large income returns, and utilises an existing suite of skills such as cooking becomes a viable way to keep their household running.
One member of the RAW panel said: "The art of a meth cook can be learnt on Youtube and is a fully transportable process. Cooking apparatus is cheap and can mostly be acquired through stores like The Warehouse.
"There is however a huge level of skill involved to do this well, which can take years of training, something often best learnt of your male cooking partner."
The second trend is all about gender equality. If you thought this issue was only present in the corporate world then think again, because it’s very much alive and well in the criminal world too.
Another member commented: “Gone are the days where the women stay at home and let the men provide. You never used to see a woman doing a drug deal, it was always a man’s role."
When asked for the reasons why, the answers coming back seem to prey on a women’s sense of loyalty, love and addictions.
“The [men] aren’t dumb, they know the consequences of getting caught. They’re thinking smarter, they know most women, especially their partners, are loyal - they know they’ll even go as far as taking the wrap for them and remember these women have probably been beaten, even groomed.
"This is when the roles reverse and the women become the providers, the risk takers and the big contributors in order to keep the men happy, feed their own addictions and in some cases, to make money to feed and clothe their kids because morally they think they’re doing what’s right.”
So, what’s the solution? There’s certainly no silver bullet but I have no doubt that education during prison terms and support upon release is where we need to channel our energies - they both offer very real choice and opportunity to make real change.
Imagine if we began to see the role of prisons as a place of renewal rather than punishment. Imagine if we saw prison terms as an opportunity to get clean and acquire the right combination of life, communication and vocation skills to enable a new life, and a new career to become possible to match the returns and flexibility of a criminal lifestyle.
That’s the sort social agenda that will really begin to address recidivist offending and burgeoning prison populations.
Annah Stretton is a fashion designer, entrepreneur and founder of RAW, a charity which works with recidivist female offenders to help them into education and work