Why lifelong prisoner surveillance is evidence of our failing prisons



The intrusion of more and more State surveillance is easier to implement if the State begins with groups the populace are frightened of. Muslim radicals, Maori radicals, environmental radicals and prisoners are all easy fodder for ratings chasing media to generate spooked knee-jerks from an an easily led muddle Nu Zilind…

Lifelong checks for worst crims
The Government is pressing on with changes to allow ex-prisoners to be monitored for the rest of their lives despite advice from officials that the new laws will breach fundamental human rights.

Parliament has been warned that extended supervision orders could punish a person twice for the same crime by allowing them to face restrictions such as GPS monitoring even after they had served their time in jail.

The Government wants the special orders to be extended to a broader group of offenders and for the maximum 10-year time limit to be abolished.

Attorney-General Chris Finlayson vetted the legislation and found it was inconsistent with Bill of Rights provisions which protected against retroactive penalties and double jeopardy.

His report was backed by the New Zealand Law Society, which said these rights were “fundamental constitutional safeguards” which should not be “eroded through incremental amendment”.

…so here we are prepared to throw fundamental legal principles of retroactive penalties and double jeopardy out the window so that we can spy on prisoners past their punishment.


There are two reasons why the Government is now pushing for lifelong mass surveillance of prisoners post release.

The first reason is because we have a giant spy agency and Police Department with unprecedented surveillance capabilities and they want to test out the exciting new endless possibilities on a sub class of citizen that no one gives a flying fuck about.

The second reason why lifelong surveillance is on the agenda is because it’s evidence of our failing prisons.

Labour played to the media calls of crime headlines by restricting parole and rushing through harder and longer sentencing in their last term. The ramifications of all those prisoners locked up for their full sentence is now bearing its bitter harvest. Because of the way parole works now, there is little reason for prisoners to self moderate their behaviour and those unable to admit their violent or sexual crimes serve their full sentence. The reason the State needs to monitor these prisoners is because they are more dangerous coming out of prison than they were going in.

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We have not invested enough into prisons to make them safe spaces where rehabilitation can occur and we haven’t spent that money on those rehabilitation services. Every Christmas there is a story about what Prisoners will eat and there is always a predictable outcry from those screaming that they get a bit of roast chook and a piece of fruit. We have been embittered and misled by our media into a vengeful lynch mob with no wider perspective of ‘what happens when these prisoners get released’.

Well, what happens is because of our poor rehabilitation services, we are simply manufacturing more damaged angry men on an industrial scale. This horror result has been mutated even further by the entry of private prisons. What is so offensive about the new private prison at Wiri is that ACC are a 30% shareholder, so a Government department is generating revenue from incarceration.

The goal then becomes keeping the prisons fuller for longer, not rehabilitation.

If we decide to keep prisoners in prison for longer – that’s fine. That’s fine, that’s a decision society makes, but surely we should be viewing their incarceration as the time where these damaged angry men can be healed enough to be able to re-enter society. Being denied your liberty is the punishment, demanding more beyond that is counter-productive and spiteful.

Lifelong surveillance is an admission that the longer sentences experiment without the appropriate rehabilitation services has created men more damaged than when they went in.

When cruelty warps social policy, this is the result.


  1. Funnily enough the recent prisoner who escaped from corrections was able to do so because he was in the process of being ‘rehabilitated’ back in to society and corrections decided they did not want to put a tracking device on him.

    • Smith/Traynor wasn’t being rehabilitated. He was approaching the end of his sentence and there was no choice – his release had to be prepared for. He was cunning enough to take advantage of this and plan his escape to another country.

      This is part of the reason we need a better system of identifying and dealing with those offenders who represent an ongoing risk to the community and those who need a much better deal in terms of assistance with returning to free society.

      A person sentenced to prison for more than two years automatically becomes eligible for parole after serving one third of their sentence. Parole is a conditional release designed to prepare for the person being released. If somebody has a finite sentence then society needs to accept the fact they are going to be released back into society no matter how horrible their offending was. The only alternative is preventive detention where there are good reasons to believe it is not safe for someone to be released. The threshhold for this is very high, so even people like Smith/Traynor are likely to become someone’s neighbour again at some stage.

      These issues are all part of the quandry we are discussing – a better prison system that treats people humanely, restores dignity and assists them toward a non-criminal lifestyle, and the need to protect society from people who are an ongoing threat. Finding the correct balance between liberty and public safety isn’t easy – if it was we’d probably be doing a lot better than we are. All that’s certain so far is that we keep failing.

  2. The emotive term “lifelong mass surveillance of prisoners” is deliberately misleading and aims at exactly the type of fear-mongering that the author condemns elsewhere.

    However the rest of the commentary on the appalling lack of rehabilitation and remedial services in our prisons is spot on. Our current prison system is grotesque, antiquated, and counter-productive. Anyone who has visited someone in prison knows that even the process of visiting is degrading and unpleasant. I had my car searched, clothing searched, had to remove shoes and belt, had a car magazine seized and chewing gum confiscated. That’s just for being a visitor. Anyone who thinks there’s anything comfortable or pleasant about being in prison is ignorant of the facts.

    There are four main components to the concept of imprisonment.
    1. Punishment, a.k.a. retribution. This has no scientific basis other than being human nature and in principle it’s the same as being burned at the stake or stoned to death. It satisfies the instinct for revenge but achieves no other purpose.

    2. Deterrence. The notion is that, based of the prospect of #1. Punishment, the offender is less likely to commit the crime. There’s plenty of historic data that shows the deterrence factor is negligible. Criminals do not contemplate the possible prison sentence when planning or executing a crime and many crimes, especially violence, are spontaneous. The factor that is known to act as a deterrent is the likelihood of detection, in other words if an offender thinks there’s a good chance of being apprehended they are much less likely to offend. Unfortunately measures that increase the likelihood of being apprehended often fall into the realm of an unacceptable encroach on civil liberties or privacy so becomes a question of what society deems acceptable on one hand, or what technological measures individuals are willing to adopt privately, e.g. home/business security and surveillance.

    3. Protecting society. I suppose this works to the extent that someone can’t easily offend when imprisoned. Also, there is a small percentage of prisoners who really do need to be kept separate from society because they are a genuine risk to public safety, but this is a relatively small number.

    4. Rehabilitation. This is where the system gets an ‘F’ minus for fail. There’s almost no incentive whatever for a prisoner to modify their behaviour in a way that makes them more likely to reintegrate into society in a productive or non-criminal way.
    Our current prison system is extremely successful in a few areas: alienating people, making them more embittered toward authority and bureaucracy, improves their criminal skills, expands their network of associates who can facilitate further criminal behaviour, increases dependence on violence as a means of problem-solving, degrades and humiliates people so they have an even bigger chip on their shoulder when they are released.
    The high incidence of illiteracy and crime-related disorders such as ADHD and mental illness are virtually ignored.

    There are some measures in place in Springhill to change this – they actually have an incentive system which helps improve independence and motivation, but it’s a slow beginning and decades overdue. There’s absolutely no point whatever giving someone a long prison sentence for a serious crime unless the time in prison is spent trying to make the prisoner a better person when they are released, and at the moment we fail miserably.

    One of the greatest ironies of the present system is that public humiliation and accountability is a stronger deterrent than what we have now, and having medieval public stocks would actually be more effective. That really says something about the 19th century methods that we foolishly cling to.

    One definition of ‘stupid’ is when you continue to do the same thing but expect a different result.

  3. PS: Given time restraints I haven’t got into a discussion about other measures we should be looking at, such as involving family and whanau and more holistic measures that help give offenders a sense of purpose and self-esteem. There are some families or groups for whom there is little hope – they are so entrenched in their anti-social mode of living that the only opportunity for change is the ethical minefield of serious, early intervention at childhood. But if we were handling things effectively the majority of prisoners should be able to return to their families and communities with dignity, purpose, and a degree of optimism. Somehow we consistently manage to do just the opposite.

  4. The third reason is future privatisation of prisons. Private prisons make their money from being full i.e. they need meat. So quite handy making everyone a criminal to create the supply.
    Except the real criminals are always away at free trade deals, looking for more opportunities to fuck us over.

  5. And now also starting this Monday, a ban on pounamu in prisons. Welcome to Aotearoa, surveillance free land with cultural respect.

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