Opinion: Caring for the vulnerable must include those behind bars

Opinion: When we talk about caring for our vulnerable it is our elderly, those who are sick, our children and those behind bars. 

It is a controversial view in a society where we often look to retribution as opposed to reparation and rehabilitation.

But as Nelson Mandela once said: "A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones." 

There are almost 10,000 convicted criminals in New Zealand serving time for a range of crimes from murder, to drug possession and petty theft. 

Those responsible are not just faceless convicts - but also our grandparents, parents, siblings, children and grandchildren. 

Some may be beyond redemption. But if our reputation as a compassionate first world country is to be more than a glossy veneer, it is vital support is given to those for whom redemption is still possible.

As it stands the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted a number of inadequacies within our prison systems; as officials scrambled to adjust to the virus risk and subsequent lockdown. 

After a few teething issues PPE (personal protective equipment) was made available to staff across the country's 18 prisons; staff who were in the at-risk category for the virus were sent home; new prisoners were isolated from the rest; non-essential travel in and out of prisons was stopped and strict physical distancing measures put in place.

And so far it is a strategy that has worked. Barring the recent case of a woman who arrived from the United States, and was held in isolation in Auckland Women’s Prison after refusing to be examined - there is not a single case of Covid-19 inside.

But the strategy has come at a cost - one that some staff, prisoner advocates and the relatives of inmates alike have said could have long-standing implications on a prisoners' health and rehabilitation. 

The prison population is already home to a significant number of people with chronic health conditions as well as those from disadvantaged backgrounds - making them more vulnerable to the virus. 

Yet, people with connections inside have said inmates do not have access to their own PPE, there is no hand sanitizer on site; a number of rehabilitation programmes are on hold indefinitely; and inmates' lifelines to their loved ones in the outside world has been minimised to a $5 phone card. 

Many were kept in cells for in excess of 20 hours a day to maintain physical distancing measures. One Kiwi woman, who did not want to be named for fear of her husband's safety, said her husband was only allowed out of his cell for two short 90-minute breaks each day. 

The rest of the time he was in a small cell space with limited walking room, his toilet at one end, "going insane with absolute boredom". 

JustSpeak director Tania Sawicki Mead - an advocate for transformative change in the criminal justice sector - said such measures put inmates at greater risk and could serve to further entrench existing inequities. 

She said even as the nation found greater freedoms under level three inmates would continue to be in solitary confinement for between 21 to 23 hours a day.  A measure proven to be detrimental to mental wellbeing and could further increase the risk of violence.

As the country moves to level two, restrictions may begin to ease and visits to prisons are able to resume. But this comes with a new set of risks for those living in such tight quarters. 

And if one catches it behind bars - overseas experience tells us the likelihood of the virus spreading far and wide is high. 

Meanwhile prison staffers have described heightened tensions as they continue to work during the pandemic; with reduced staff numbers and ongoing assaults on staff - all while fearing for their own personal health. 

One long-time prison staffer, who did not want to be named, said staff numbers were being "mismanaged" to "dangerous" levels and many working for Corrections felt as if their value as an essential service was not acknowledged by the public or those in power.

"Every day I go to work I risk myself, my loved ones, fellow workers, as well as their loved ones, and the inmates.

"Staff need to feel as though they are not forgotten and that measures will take place immediately, to keep themselves and their families and inmates safe."

Of course these virus confinement measures are temporary; and public health is a valid concern. 

However, there were issues in our criminal justice system long before the pandemic. New Zealand has one of the highest rates of incarceration - 219 prisoners per 100,000 in 2017 - significantly higher than Australia's 162 and England and Wales' 145. 

Our rates of reoffending within two years are also fairly high - at just over 40 per cent between 2013 and 2016. Those of Māori descent continue to disproportionately fill up our prisons; as a result of what their advocates say is a biased system. 

In 2014 New Zealand was also criticised by the United Nations over its treatment of prisoners, in particular how many were being held on lock-down for 19 hours a day; and how some were also not given full access to rehabilitation programmes. 

It is clear Covid-19 has thrown some unprecedented challenges into the mix. But rather than just writing these issues off as a once-in-a-century event perhaps it is time to transform our system. 

Lessons can be learnt from countries like Norway where a strong focus on rehabilitation has led to some of the lowest rates of reoffending in the world - at 20 per cent after two years. It has a population of around one million more than New Zealand - yet it has less than half the number of prisoners we do. 

A small prison population would invariably help reduce the need for lengthy lockdowns in times like these when physical distancing is necessary. Assessing individuals who may be eligible for release or for community-based sentences and reducing the number of people being held prior to conviction would be one place to start - all with the appropriate checks and balances in place.

Such a process is not about letting prisoners off lightly; but supporting them to take accountability, to recognise their wrongdoings and find a way forward. 

And the reality is most prisoners are not lifers - they will be released into society again. 

Personally I would rather have them out transformed and able to make a more valuable contribution to society; than come out angrier and more damaged than when they went in.

Corazon Miller is Newshub Nation's Auckland-based reporter.