“If we only keep ourselves surrounded by people who think the same and we do the same things, and we never ever branch out, we’re never ever going to get any different results than we always have,” Shelith Hansbro says from across the table in her hotel lobby in Wellington.

“Do the same thing, and you get the same thing in return.”

Hansbro – a journalist and public affairs officer-turned prison warden – is visiting New Zealand as the coalition Government wades through a massive piece of work to reform the country’s justice system. Meanwhile, it’s also working towards the goal of reducing the prison population by 30 percent in 15 years.

Part of Justice Minister Andrew Little’s mission has been to change the rhetoric away from ‘tough on crime’.

The ‘tough on crime’ vote-winner is something Hansbro knows well.

In 2010, she became the warden at Decatur Correctional Center – a women’s prison in Illinois. In May last year, she became the warden of a men’s facility.

Like many countries, the United States has struggled with rising prison populations, especially for women. In both the US and New Zealand, the female population has risen at a significantly higher rate than the male population.

In New Zealand, in September 2017, 800 women were in jail – both remand and sentenced prisoners. This compared with 672 in September 2016, a 19 per cent increase in just 12 months. In September 2012, only 511 women were behind bars, meaning the female prison population rose more than 56 per cent in just five years.

There has since been a slight decline in these numbers, with 723 women in prison on March 8.

Hansbro said part of the resistance to justice system changes was that people didn’t want to be seen to be ‘soft on crime’, particularly amid coverage of serious crimes in their communities – often associated with drugs.

People want to feel safe, she said, adding that politicians were afraid of losing their base over justice reforms.

“What happens is everyone’s afraid to be the first one to make a move for reform. We can talk about it, but when it comes down to a vote, people are afraid to make that next step.”

Inevitably some people reoffend when released from prison. Politicians were afraid of what that would mean for them if they were to relax legislation, she said.

However, greater transparency around the types of crime that took place in neighbourhoods, and who was victimised, would help, Hansbro said, adding that perception of crime was quite different to reality.

For example, New Zealand’s perceptions of crime survey show while people over 65 felt the most unsafe in their neighbourhood after dark, last year’s crime and victims survey showed people in this age group were least likely to be victims of a crime.

Drugs and the female prison population

Hansbro said similar to the situation in New Zealand, the rapid rise in the US female prison population was largely attributable to drug issues in communities.

The US has been devastated by an opioid epidemic. And in New Zealand, Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis and former Corrections chief executive Ray Smith, have talked about the fallout from methamphetamine use.

Similar to the impacts on Māori in New Zealand, drug use and offending disproportionately affects African Americans in the US.

Last week, Health Minister David Clark and Police Minister Stuart Nash introduced the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill to New Zealand’s Parliament.

As part of the Government’s commitment to treat drugs as a health issue, the proposed legislation gives police an enshrined ability to use their discretion in dealing with cases that involve drugs.

This change of law would allow police to officially refer people to support services and keep better records regarding these cases.

Hansbro said there was also discussion in the US to move towards a more health-focused approach, regarding drug offending. But whether that discussion would result in action depended on who you were talking to, she said.

“I would definitely say there is more of an understanding that providing programmes and support to those who are incarcerated, gives them a better chance of success once they leave prison – male and female.”

Giving mums and babies a fighting chance

One of those programmes was the mums and babies unit in the Decatur Correctional Center.

During her time as the warden of a women’s prison, Hansbro worked closely with the programme, which had a high success rate.

More than 90 women had completed the programme in 11 years. Only two have been imprisoned again within three years of release.

Hansbro said the programme gave mothers and babies the chance to bond with their children during the formative years. This meant they could “create, maintain and sustain a bond”.

“It will make them think twice as far as engaging in illegal activity and going back to prison, and then not having their children with them.”

Some women have never been the primary caregiver, with their mothers and grandmothers taking on the role – or in some cases, children have been in the custody of social services.

The unit gave women the chance to learn how to be a better parent, with tailored programmes, as well as unstructured time with their children. The centre also ran a reunification programme, where children could visit their mothers and spend extended periods with them.

New Zealand has also allowed babies to live with their mothers since 2002, but the mothers and babies units, as they exist now, were established after the Corrections (Mothers and Babies) Amendment Act was passed in 2008.

Corrections then began refurbishing and building new facilities for the current three units, which began housing women and their children in 2011.

A Corrections spokesperson said the main focus was the best interests of the child.

Each year, in New Zealand, about a dozen babies are born to mothers in prison. “Irrespective of their mothers’ circumstances, these babies deserve a good start,” the spokesperson said.

“While there is some evidence that mothers and babies programmes can reduce reoffending, it is important to note that the Mothers with Babies Unit is not a rehabilitation programme; its primary purpose is to support the development of secure attachment in the child and increased parenting skills and maternal sensitivity in the mothers, and play a part in breaking the intergenerational cycle of imprisonment.”

The units provided an opportunity for babies to bond with their mothers in a safe and supportive environment during the child’s first two years.

The units were designed to help secure attachment between mother and baby and develop parenting skills, while still giving mothers access to rehabilitation programmes to address their offending.

In Hansbro’s unit in Illinois, only mothers with a sentence of 24 months or less were eligible for the unit, as separating the mother and child was not seen as desirable.

In New Zealand, babies also have to leave the prison by the time they turned two, but sometimes that was without their mother. In those cases, there was a transition plan put in place from the beginning, with Oranga Tamariki working with the caregiver in the community to make sure the process was gradual, and all parties were supported.

Hansbro said the trip was an opportunity for her to learn about New Zealand’s mums and babies unit, and discuss the similarities and differences. The warden emphasised the importance of talking to a range of people form different backgrounds, doing different things.

During her time in New Zealand Hansbro gave a public talk and met with justice and corrections officials, as well as Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis. The trip was part of the Presbyterian Support Northern lecture series, with visiting experts from the US and United Kingdom discussing mental health in schools, children in conflict situations and family violence prevention.

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