Story: Prisoner support and advocacy

Page 3. The Howard League for Penal Reform

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Early years

The Howard League for Penal Reform takes its name from the 18th-century English penal reformer John Howard. It grew out of the Howard Association, set up in Britain in 1866 to advocate humane treatment of prisoners, and the Penal Reform League, founded in 1907. Blanche Baughan, an advocate for prisoners in Christchurch, read about the Howard League in the London Spectator, and worked with others to establish a New Zealand branch of the league in 1924. Seven other branches were soon established across the country, with Baughan as national secretary.

The league’s efforts to educate the public were based on the new disciplines of psychiatry, psychology and criminology. A campaign was mounted for probation in the community as a more constructive sanction than prison. The first full-time probation officers were appointed in 1927. Baughan’s book People in prison fiercely criticised the inhumanity of the prison system and its failure to reform offenders. It asserted a need for psychologists and trained ‘social servants’.

Campaigns against harsh punishment, the 1940s

Members of the Howard League challenged Prison Board reports and strongly criticised the use of the indefinite sentence of reformative detention. Successful campaigns were mounted against capital punishment and the use of flogging in prisons; both were abolished in 1941. When capital punishment was reinstated in 1950, the league mounted another campaign against it, setting up a second organisation for the purpose. Capital punishment was finally abolished under the Crimes Act 1961.

An eye for an eye makes everyone blind

In its submission to the parliamentary select committee on capital punishment in 1950, the Howard League stated: ‘The crime of murder should be dealt with in a way that will encourage respect for human life and personality … We hold that not the imposition of the death penalty, but the refusal by society to imitate the murderer’s action is the most emphatic repudiation of murder. The death penalty is harmful to the whole community because periodically it stirs up unhealthy emotions and concentrates public interest on brutality, violence and vengeance.’1

Throughout the 1940s the league objected to a wide range of restrictive and inhumane practices in the new borstals, detention centres and prisons. They highlighted mail restrictions, non-association, solitary confinement on bread-and-water diets, the lack of vocational guidance for youth, the lack of classification based on psychological treatment and the need for more social-security help for dependants.

Pacifists and conscientious objectors who had experienced detention or imprisonment during the Second World War worked with the league. Methodist clergyman Ormond Burton was the most notable. The league produced a stream of articles, pamphlets, submissions and booklets, and sought regular meetings with the minister of justice.

A new era, 1949–1989

In 1949 Samuel Barnett, the new head of prisons, ended a period described as notable for ‘its rigidity, its parsimony, and its want of vision’.2 The Howard League was invited to meetings with state officials. Welcome reforms included open prison farms, special treatment for different classes of prisoners, a classification board, more probation officers, prison welfare officers, meals in prison dining rooms, visiting debating groups, and the promotion of the New Zealand Prisoners’ Aid and Rehabilitation Society (NZPARS). In the 1950s and 1960s many members of the League were optimistic about penal reform.

While troubled over the treatment of women and young offenders, and the small numbers of probation officers and psychologists, the Christchurch branch of the Howard League went into recess in 1974, believing that these matters were in hand. Peter Williams QC continued to lead the league in Auckland, providing advocacy by way of media interviews, public demonstrations and meetings, submissions on penal policy, and campaigns about substandard conditions at Mt Eden and Pāremoremo prisons.

Resisting calls for harsher sentences, 1998 onwards

In 1998 the Canterbury branch of the Howard League was re-launched. Together with the Auckland branch, it sought to counter a rising tide of public demands – and political will – for longer sentences and harsher treatment for offenders.

Since then the league has worked to promote open and rational debate on issues of crime, punishment, rehabilitation and alternatives to prison. It has campaigned about the overuse of imprisonment, the use of force in prisons, the treatment of mothers and babies, and restrictions on prison visiting by family and friends.

The league continued to produce regular fact sheets and newsletters, made submissions on relevant legislation and official investigations, wrote articles, and gave media interviews and public talks. A Christchurch office was established in 2004 and a part-time advocate employed in 2005. Funding came from members and community trusts.

Alongside this broader advocacy, members of the league had daily contact with prisoners and their families, which informed their opinions and statements about specific prison conditions and treatment. Members of the league could apply for specified-visitor status, which enabled them to visit as volunteers, and interested-party status at coroner’s inquests into deaths in police or prison cells.

  1. Memorandum submitted to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Capital Punishment, 1950, by the New Zealand Howard League for Penal Reform, 2 October 1950. Box 5, New Zealand Howard League for Penal Reform Records, Macmillan Brown Library. Back
  2. Greg Newbold, Punishment and politics: the maximum security prison in New Zealand. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 6. Back
How to cite this page:

Kathy Dunstall, 'Prisoner support and advocacy - The Howard League for Penal Reform', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 May 2022)

Story by Kathy Dunstall, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 18 May 2018