New Zealand’s longest serving prisoner is Alfred Vincent, a paedophile who was convicted of a string of indecent assaults in 1968 and sentenced to preventative detention, which means that he can remain in prison as long as a parole board assesses him as continuing to pose a threat to the community. In the 47 years since he has repeatedly failed to gain parole. After being declined at his most recent parole hearing, Vincent will have served a half century by the time of his next hearing. His lawyer plans to take his case to the United Nations Working Party on Arbitrary Detention, but the parole board’s decision cites a “a strong and persistent pattern of highly sexualised interest and behaviour” that makes him a danger to the community and “is not amenable to treatment.”
Fifty years will place him among the world’s longest serving prisoners, just behind the 55 years of the UK’s John Staffen, a serial killer who died in prison in 2007, although he is unlikely to ever serve as long as Paul Geidel, a murderer who was imprisoned in America for 68 years, and released in 1980 at the age of 86.
Given the issues involved in releasing a man such as Vincent, it’s poossible he will never be set free. Now 76, with almost two thirds of his life spent behind bars, he would be a man long out of his own time, who would need care, supervision and support almost constantly. When Paul Geidel was released, he was so frail that he went straight into a nursing home.
On his own, Vincent represents a curiosity of the justice system – an arguably necessary response to the unavoidable problem that he poses. But he is the tip of a growing iceberg. As we can see in the graphs below, use of long and indeterminate prison sentences in New Zealand has risen substantially since the mid-1980s:
Where prisoners on long sentences (2 years or more) were once a minority in jail, they now comprise around 70% of the prison population. Unsurprisingly, this increase in longer sentences correlates generally with the beginning of a rise in prison populations in the late 1980s.
In the background, use of indeterminate sentences has increased as well, to the point where offenders on life sentences and preventative detention (like Vincent) now form ten percent of the prison population. To put it another way, in 1983 there were around 100 offenders on indeterminate sentences, while in 2013 there were around 750.
In the 1980s, this might have made a degree of sense – violent crime was on the rise, and locking offenders away seemed like a solution. But by the mid-1990s crime had peaked, and it has been decreasing ever since. Use of extremely long sentences however, has continued to expand. This approach may require a rethink.
Long sentences are expensive, but we have an appetite for them, and as long as that remains the case we’d better get used to seeing old men like Alfred Vincent in our jails and the unique problems that will pose.