September 25, 2007

Nations competing to incarcerate more citizens

New Zealand's expensive new prison will teach history to indigenous people

As you, dear reader, already know, the prison population in the United States is enormous. The United States incarcerates more people both in raw numbers and in the proportion of its population than any other country.

But, like McDonalds and Starbucks, the prison nation concept is increasingly international. Around the world, prison populations are mushrooming. More than 9 million planetary residents are behind bars, with the proportion dramatically rising over the past 15 years.

This trend is not explained by rising crime rates or population growth. Rather, it is primarily due to a combination of public anxiety and fear, moral panics, harsh crime and drug policies, increasing use of incarceration to solve endemic social problems, and longer prison sentences for a larger variety of offenses.

New Zealand, a typical example, saw a 38% rise in its prison population during the 1990s, and anticipates another big jump over the next few years, largely due to longer prison sentences and imprisonment for more offenses.

Just this week, New Zealand opened a costly new prison near Auckland. With the prison business booming, it is expected to quickly fill.

The Spring Hill Corrections Facility is supposedly focused on rehabilitation and reintegration. It features a large rugby field and a wharenui (meeting house) where Māori people will be taught about their history. (Not unlike the disproportionate representation of minorities in U.S. prisons, Māoris are imprisoned at a rate of 568 per 100,000, as compared with a rate of 98 per 100,000 for non-Māoris.)

How's that for irony: Go to prison to learn about your history of oppression.

The International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College, London, has a remarkable interactive chart of worldwide incarceration rates. Go to New Zealand's TV3 for a news video about the new Spring Hill prison.

Hat tip to the Correctional Forum blog of Pennsylvania for alerting me to the New Zealand prison's opening.