Calls for better education in prison to tackle New Zealand's 'high' reoffending rates

New figures show literacy levels in New Zealand's prisons are staggeringly low but could an American program be the resolution to the problem? 

Written Parliamentary Questions (WPQs) by ACT answered by Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis state of the 7964 prisoners managed by Corrections, only 87 males and 12 females are enrolled in literacy programmes. 

Numeracy levels are even lower with only 53 male and eight female prisoners enrolled. 

ACT said Davis' responses also show Corrections were unaware of the literacy competency of 2111 prisoners and the numeracy competency of 2129 prisoners.

Mneesha Gellman, the founder and Director of the Emerson Prison Initiative, told AM on Monday her program provides a Bachelor of Arts pathway to incarcerated students in the Massachusetts area.

"We admit people into college who are serving prison sentences and then we bring in-person college instruction to them with courses that stack in a curricular pathway that leads up to the completion of a four-year bachelor's degree awarded by Emerson College," Gellman told AM co-host Ryan Bridge. 

The initiative works with prisoners from a "wide range" of academic experiences, ranging from people who dropped out of high school to students who already have university experience. 

Gellman said prisoners who complete the initiative are more likely to go on and get a job once they leave prison.

"This is a really exciting moment to be speaking with you. We just held our first bachelor's degree graduation in September where we had 10 students complete all of the requirements over five years to earn that bachelor's degree," she said. 

"A few of them were released from prison shortly after and have gone on to land, very quickly, amazing, important jobs. One of them is now working with at-risk youth for a non-profit organisation in the Boston area, doing violence prevention work with young people. 

"He's able to pivot from being incarcerated person himself to putting his degree immediately to work to try to break cycles of violence that his own community was affected by."

One issue plaguing New Zealand is our reoffending rates.

The Ministry of Justice website said New Zealand's "reoffending rates are high" with around 70 percent of people with previous convictions reconvicted within two years following release from prison. On top of that, around 49 percent are re-imprisoned after two years following release from prison. 

Gellman said education in prison is "one of best interventions" to stop people from reoffending. 

"That's what we see for most people in the United States who are earning college degrees inside and then releasing. They're able to work in the aboveground economy, getting jobs in a wide range of occupations, but able to do things that keep them from going back to prison," she said. 

"We see education as one of the best interventions that can be made to keep people from returning to prison once they've left it."

New Zealand's low enrollment of prisoners in literacy programmes shows how we see the role of incarceration in relation to public safety, Gellman said. 

"There's been really a blossoming of college and prison programmes across the country, and programmes like mine are working in more and more carceral spaces, prisons and jails, bringing on incarcerated people as college students," she told AM. 

"The numbers in New Zealand make me wonder how New Zealand see the relationship between incarceration and public safety because people need education in order to not recidivate or not return to prison. Those numbers look to me like we need to connect those dots better."

Watch the full interview with Mneesha Gellman above.

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