"It is said that no-one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its gaols. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest."
The French philosopher, Michel Foucault, in 'Discipline and Punish', wrote about the move away from the old public festivals of punishment towards a sanitised, industrialised form that is largely hidden from the public gaze.
The old forms of punishment were public spectacles – intended to entertain as much as intimidate the populace. Only the favoured (mostly the aristocracy) were granted a quick, clean and relatively private death.
The ancient public rituals of judicial punishment - burning, hanging, beheading, disembowelling, flogging - have been replaced by incarceration, with its persistent surveillance, separation, solitary confinement and rigid discipline.
Prisons that were once used either to hold debtors or political opponents or to hold the accused and condemned until they were subjected to corporal or capital punishment - have become the punishment.
With the emergence of the prison as the preferred, and more 'civilised', form of punishment, the methods of killing have also become 'scientific' and medicalised in most states that still execute their citizens.
The guillotine was considered a humane death in contrast to the ways a feudal traitor would have met his end. In hanging, the length of rope and weight of prisoner are carefully calculated to ensure, if not the hoped-for Hangman's Fracture, at least a rapid asphyxiation. In electrocution, a wet sponge is placed on the head of the prisoner to hopefully render them unconscious if, as often happens, the electric shock does not kill them instantly. But, it is with the use of lethal injection that this attempt to sanitise judicial killing, is at its most obvious - to the extent that the process often becomes a macabre parody of a medical procedure.
The modern, clean, high-tech penitentiary is presented as a huge advance on the chaotic and bloody bedlam of what went before. The very term ‘penitentiary’ came about because the institutions were intended to be rehabilitative. The criminal was incarcerated, confined and isolated in small, monastic-like cells within a larger building, not just to protect civil society, but in order that the evil-doer might reflect upon, and repent his sins.
The truth is that separation and isolation, the enforcement of a rigid discipline, the removal of autonomy, the lack of privacy, the imposition of who is socialised with and when - are all punishments that strike at the very heart of what it means to be human.
We are profoundly social animals but we did not evolve in vast swarms. Isolation is unnatural and stressful for us but so too is over-crowding and enforced association.
Our social arrangements - when healthy - allow us to choose with whom and when to interact, and when to be alone. For most of our social evolution those arrangements were within communities in which kinship and communal ties and the normal distribution of age and experience moderated and controlled group and individual behaviour.
Most prisons dispense with all the things that help keep us social and balanced and therefore human. As such they are inhumane - intended not to rehabilitate or even just to contain - but to punish. The State exacts revenge on behalf of the actual victim of a crime.
In the recent era, it has gone far beyond that.
The 'panopticon prison', in which the incarcerated cannot escape the gaze of their gaolers, may be seen as a reflection of the growth of a surveillance society in which the citizen cannot escape the gaze of the State. Most of us are more surveilled today than we have ever been in our history as a species.
The prison's rigidly imposed and enforced daily regimen and the removal of any autonomy may be seen as a reflection of the loss of autonomy as a result of the imposition, onto private lives, of the priorities, timeframes and schedules of business. Most of us (especially the poor) do not freely choose whether, when, where or how we work.
The modern state uses the prison to hide many of its social problems. It sweeps poverty, addiction, homelessness, low educational achievement and mental illness under a judicial carpet and locks it all away behind impenetrable walls.
It also removes from the body politic, a potent source of social unrest; alienated, angry young men who have been shut out of a world which dangles the promise of status and material rewards but denies most the means to reach them.
When a society fails to provide educational and training opportunities and to create meaningful work; when it labels the under- and unemployed as a ‘feral underclass'; when it creates mandatory and longer sentences for the sorts of crimes the poor are most likely to commit - it declares a whole stratum of people to be a social problem that can be solved - in part at least - by imprisoning many of them.
As felons, people are disenfranchised; some remain so even after release. Ex-prisoners are less likely to get scarce jobs, which cements their marginalised status and means they are more likely to end up back in prison.
This self-fuelling system has reached its nadir in the USA where the total number of men and women imprisoned in federal and state prisons is equivalent to almost half of the total population of NZ. Young black men in the USA are more likely to be imprisoned than to get a decent education. They are incarcerated at an average rate of over 5 times that of their fellow white Americans and, in some states, that rate goes up to twice that.
Black women are twice as likely to be imprisoned than white women. There are more women in prison in California today than there were in the entire USA in the 1970s. Women in prison often find themselves trapped in an intersection of class, race and sex controlled by an arm of a state that has already proven itself incapable of managing that intersection in wider society.
The number of prisons in the USA has exploded since the 1970s - a large majority of them were opened in the eighties and nineties. What Angela Davis called the 'prison-industrial complex' emerged at the start of the neoliberal era and it has proliferated and spread its tentacles all over the developed world.
The ethnic and the social class profile of the inmates of these modern prisons is evidence that the entire system is not only racist but is intended to control those people who have been hardest hit by the rapacious, globetrotting capital of the neoliberal era.
It is no accident that in the same era in the USA and elsewhere, there has been a massive proliferation of corporations that provide private security services, an increased militarisation of the police, and an increase in the number and confidence of armed rightwing militias.
The entry onto the scene of private prisons in the USA is a return to the use of convict labour. In private prisons there is an economic imperative to increase profits by cutting the cost of staffing and the maintenance of buildings and of prisoners, and by making money out of convict labour.
In the antebellum era, convict labourers were almost all black men. The chain gang's links to the abolition of slavery were as obvious as the system was cruel and oppressive. These days in the USA the captive, hyper-exploitable prison labour force is still disproportionately black.
Mostly prisoners work in factories hidden from the public eye but reactionary extremists like Joe Arpaio publicly parade shackled inmates wearing chain-gang style uniforms - a public reminder of an era when black men convicted for minor crimes were subjected to conditions as bad or even worse than slavery - including being literally worked to death.
The likes of Arpaio remind us that, however clean, clinical, medicalised and scientific the modern surveillance state's prisons appear to be, there's an older, brutal reality that is played out inside them. This brutal order is allowed and even encouraged as long as it doesn't turn on the keepers - and as long as its ugly truth doesn't seep too far beyond the prison walls.
One of the greatest ironies is that the brutality is attributed, not to the nature of the institution, but to the pathological nature of its inmates. The truth is not that inmates are all predisposed to behaving badly, but that the system places barriers to, and often prevents them from behaving well. Furthermore, it is intended to do just that in no small part because prisoners who behave badly while inside and once released, serve to justify the existence both of the prisons and of other examples of the surveillance state.
In all of this NZ is nowhere near as bad as America but that’s more a measure of the enormity of the USA's failures than it is of our successes.
Our society creates and perpetuates the conditions in which some people are more likely to commit crimes, often because they have no real choice.
We have differential standards for defining and responding to crimes that have been committed by the affluent and the elite, and crimes that have been committed by the poor and the marginalised.
We punish certain types of crime committed by certain types of people more harshly which is evidenced by the fact that we imprison poor and brown skinned people more often, and for longer than we do affluent or white people.
Our incarceration rate of poor and brown skinned people, like the incidence of poverty-related child abuse, is a national disgrace and makes a mockery of New Zealand's claims to be the progressive, first world nation it likes to think it is.
Māori are 14.6% of New Zealand's population and 51% of its prison population. At current incarceration rates, Māori will half fill the hugely expensive new prisons the National Government is committed to building.
This ugly reality and the pretence that we are a decent, egalitarian and just society creates massive cognitive dissonance. Many Kiwis deal with that by excluding those people from the 'real' New Zealand; they label them as 'feral', as undeserving, as pathological. Their existence is deemed to be an aberration, nothing to do with real Kiwis who are fundamentally egalitarian, hardworking, decent and just.
We pat ourselves on the back for such things as being progressive towards the LGBT community, for having partly closed the gender wage gap, for being the first country to give women the vote, for having a young woman and a Māori man in the running to become Prime Minister and Deputy PM.
These are all very laudable things but frankly, while we have families that are forced to live in cars, homeless people who die of cold on the streets, thousands of kids who live in poverty, an appalling rate of violence against women and children, high levels of horizontal violence and incarceration of men of colour at rates which match those of the most racist of American states - we have no right to be smug and self congratulatory.
I will leave you with this thought: if Black and Hispanic Americans were incarcerated at the same rates as White Americans, the US prison population would drop by almost 40%.
If Māori and Pacifica men were incarcerated at the same rate as White New Zealanders, we would not need 1800 new prison beds and we could be looking at better, more social and productive ways of spending 1 billion dollars.