Mike Williams: Step back and move in a different direction

Mike Williams. Photo / NZME

Over the course of ten years, readers of this column will have heard a lot about the Howard League, which I have chaired since 2011.

Help is in store for both of my loyal followers as two months ago I told the League’s board of my intention to step down as CEO of the charity.

As my advancing years, the league’s offender driver’s license program, two talented, experienced and capable successors and up to five years of government funding provided for programs aimed at reducing NZ is an opportune time to pass the baton. The inflated incarceration rate is well-established and demonstrates measurable success.

League volunteers have taught hundreds of inmates a range of skills, focusing on literacy but also extending to student licensing, numeracy, beekeeping and other eclectic classes.

Our licensing team has obtained over 15,000 licenses for criminals, putting the majority of these clients on a path to employment and a life without more jail time.

I will remain on the league’s board and commit to raising the funds needed to fund advanced licenses (trucks, forklifts, etc.) not covered by the Corrections grant – which guarantee employment – and restarting ice prison programs within two years of Covid- 19 courtesy.

I will also remain a spokesperson for the Howard League at least through the 2023 election year, when prisons and prisoners will again become an election issue.

We have many visionary politicians to thank for recognizing the value of and supporting the League’s programs – from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis, to former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, Minister Shane Jones and Sir Bill English of the Impact Lab. an evaluation of the licensing program showed that it returned $3.26 for every $1 invested by the Crown.

The closure of prisons across the country is a devastating consequence of the pandemic. Corrections made the right decision by booking this unprecedented event, but it meant two or more years of no visitors and no Howard League volunteers teaching inmates.

Professional services provided by prisons have also been discontinued, such as the excellent work Te Wananga O Aotearoa does on Correctional sites.

The excellent progress this Government has made in reducing the prison population to less than internationally embarrassing levels is unlikely to help the pandemic.

Statistics New Zealand’s prison population stood at 7,500 in the July report, down from a peak of 10,500 in February 2000.

Readers who need to spend money to reduce the prison population by 3,000 simply multiply that number by $146,000—roughly the current annual cost of keeping one inmate in prison.

To close the gains made in the last five years, we as a country need to focus more on the prisoners’ post-release journey.

There is good progress in this area.

When former Howard League President Tony Gibbs and I approached several banks looking for what we consider to be routine banking for released prisoners, this was deemed impossible. However, we now have this service as released prisoners are now able to get bank accounts thanks to a very valuable initiative by former Westpac CEO David McLean.

The Department of Corrections has put more resources into post-release services. Five years ago, Corrections Manager Steve Cunningham began training and deploying Education and Training Consultants (ETM). These persons help prisoners to find work and educational opportunities at the end of their sentence.

With unemployment figures at historically low levels and many employers desperate for workers, Steve Cunningham’s initiative is now paying off, partly explaining why re-crime is on the way down. Steve has now moved on to MPI and in my opinion is a loss to Corrections.

I would like to see more initiatives aimed at investing in potential offenders before a prison sentence occurs. Helping first-time offenders to get their driver’s license would be a big step in the right direction.

With the time I have now, I intend to take a closer look at the phenomenon of the over-representation of First Nations people in the prison systems of New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

We know that Māori make up 4 per cent of the population of Aotearoa but 52 per cent of the prison population, so it was not too surprising to find the same pattern in Australia.

In this country, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up just over 2 per cent of the population, but 27 per cent of the incarcerated population.

Canada is no different in that its first peoples make up less than 5 percent of the population but 31 percent of Canada’s prisoners.

Blaming colonialism and dispossession, as in academic articles, may identify root causes but is useless in providing answers.

Mike Williams grew up in Hawke’s Bay. He is the Chief Executive of the NZ Howard League and a former President of the Labor Party

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