I was rereading a book last week written by social justice advocate Celia Lashlie. ‘The Journey to Prison: Who goes and why’, isn’t a new book, it was published back in 2002, but it’s as relevant today as it was more than a decade ago. The book chronicles the origins of criminal offending in New Zealand; it examines our system of punishment, the effectiveness of prison and the role drug addiction plays in offending. The book also tackles youth crime, child abuse and parental responsibility. Lashlie also gives us a brief insight into her own background as a working solo mother.
Lashlie began her professional career as a probation officer in Lower Hutt in 1984. She joined the prison service in 1985 and became the first female prison officer to work in a male institution in New Zealand. In a prison service career that spans 15 years, Lashlie finally became the General Manager of Christchurch Womens Prison. Her life experience puts her in a unique position to be able to comment on some of the underlying causes of crime in New Zealand today.
‘The Journey to Prison: Who goes and why’, is an observational piece of work by a woman who uses her skills as a supreme storyteller to illustrate a number of key points. She tells us of the blond, angelic-faced five-year-old sitting in a classroom in New Zealand; who is going to go to prison and on the way there he will probably kill someone. Stark words, but who can forget the case of Bailey Junior Kurariki, who became the country’s youngest convicted killer in 2002 at the tender age of 12. Backgrounds like his are illustrated passionately throughout Lashies’ account. The point is well made that there is something deeply cancerous in our society, when children as young as 12 can beat someone to death without a thought. The author plots the course for a myriad of children, providing searing examples of the viciousness meted out to people by boys and girls throughout our communities. She tells us about kids dropping out of primary school who are on the street committing crime and drifting in to prostitution.
The issues highlighted are of abusive homes where violence is routine and where death often stalks the young. She backs these claims up with devastating statistics; in one article she cites Rosemary Mcleod figures ‘showed that 87 children under the age of 14 were killed in this country between 1990 and 1999, mostly by family, extended family or caregivers’. More than that, in the same paragraph she shows police statistics indicating that from 1994 to 2000, there were 19,501 victims of sexual abuse, violence or neglect in a country that calls itself Gods own. These figures are hard to accept and you wonder if anything has really changed.
Lashlie’s book reveals that 80-85% of inmates serving time in prison are addicted to alcohol and/or other drugs. She asserts that in nine cases out of ten, an inmates’ addiction stems from ‘their desperate need to forget the reality of their lives’. This allows them to ‘submerge the memories of the abuse they have suffered…’ while this isn’t to be viewed as an excuse for offending it is one of the fundamental reasons for it. That’s one thing Celia Lashie is very clear about. So many people begin their life of crime young and on drugs which only serves to mentally and emotionally stunt their personal growth, sense of self and perceptions of the world around them. With that in mind, Lashlie devotes a whole chapter to cannabis , where she’s vehemently opposed to its use by the young. It’s not a difficult proposition to accept. But there are those in our community who think there is nothing wrong with the drug and constantly push for its decriminalisation. They see it as an issue of personal freedom, which as Celia Lashlie points out ‘has little to do with the reality being lived by many of the children in our society’. She sites another article from the Dominion newspaper where it was reported that 33 children under the age of two and a half were admitted to hospitals in the North Island over a six years period. The reason for the hospitalisations was cannabis poisoning. According to one paediatrician the figure could be as high 100 children suffering cannabis poisoning per year. This is straight child abuse and few people seem to be accountable.
This is a straight-talking, forthright and challenging book. And there is plenty of meat in the sandwich chew on. The Journey to Prison tends on occasion to be preachy and superficial and there aren’t too many answers to the problems facing our society. While the book often paints a bleak picture, in itself it’s not bleak book. Many of the problems facing us are outlined and Lashlie challenges us to figure out what needs to happen to reduce crime. The problems are many and varied, to start with the issues are of; poor housing, unemployment, child abuse, parental responsibility, drug addiction and social dislocation all loam large in our communities. Many of these issues Lashlie penetrates in an eloquent and no nonsense way. It’s a must read and so relevant it could have been written yesterday. Hunt it out because it is the best call to arms written in this country this century.
RIP Celia Lashlie one of the best social justice advocates this country has seen in the last twenty years, Read ‘ The Journey to Prison: Who goes and why’. You’ll find out the origins of crime in this country. I’m very sad that she’s passed away. I interviewed her a few years back. She was forthright, strong, intelligent and articulate. She was too young to pass away and she leaves a big hole in the discussion around social issues. Celia Lashlie will be missed.
– James King