by ROWENA OREJANA
Prison Fellowship President Emeritus Ron Nikkel has urged New Zealanders
to be more involved in the lives of prisoners by helping those newly released become reestablished in the community.
That includes providing them with a supportive network — as well as supporting
the families of those who are still locked up.
Mr Nikkel, who stepped down from his position in June after serving for 33
years, said, “prison is an illogical way of treating offenders”.
“If we think that people made bad choices, they committed a crime and so
we put them in prison [where] they no longer have the ability to choose anything. Choices are taken away from them. They’re told where to go what to do, when to eat and what to eat. Everything is structured. And they are going out after serving their time better able to make decisions?” he said, shaking his head.
He said locking up offenders is negative not only for the person but for
families, as well. He said 70 per cent of offenders will reoffend, and children of prisoners are seven times more likely to become offenders.
“I think most people don’t understand the reality of prison. The reality is it doesn’t work. It doesn’t make so called ‘bad’ people good. In most cases,
it makes them worse,” Mr Nikkel said.
What is needed, he said, is a rethink of what justice is and what it looks like.
“Justice means a lot of things. It should offer protection to the victim or rescue the victim from further harm. It should look like we hold the offender
accountable for their actions. Justice should look like we are really holding
them responsible for their behaviour,” he said. “Justice should look like we repair the damage that’s been done, and the offender should have some role in repairing that damage.”
He said offenders can also be made to do community work to repair their relationships with the community.
Justice is about putting things back in the right relationship. “The victim
must get some sort of satisfaction. There should be some closure for the victim. And closure doesn’t just come through retribution or through punishment,” Mr Nikkel said.
Mr Nikkel said although some countries’ justice systems have become more punitive, others are going more towards restorative justice. “It goes both ways but, overall, I’m seeing positive change,” he said.
He is also encouraged by their accomplishments.
“When I started we only had Prison Fellowship in five countries, and now it’s in 128 countries. So that tells me there are people in the churches who are concerned about justice and who are becoming involved.”
He pointed out that 33 years ago, Prison Fellowship was not at the community level. Now people in the community help out by caring for the families of those in prison, as well as providing support to released offenders.
“The big thing that remains to be done is to help people understand what
justice really means. And to put pressure on government to say this is the
kind of justice that we want,” he said.
Mr Nikkel said prison will always be needed to protect society, particularly
from those who represent a danger or threat, violent offenders and chronic
“But we don’t need as many prisons as we have or to use them as extensively.”
He said some offenders who commit crime to support their drug or alcohol addiction, for example, would be better served by a treatment programme.
Despite his retirement, Mr Nikkel does not have any plans to stop advocating
for people in prison. “It’s in my blood. It’s a vocation,” he said.
by ROWENA OREJANA