His escape – the culmination of a series of individually harmless missteps by various agencies – will mean a lot for how prisoners are monitored in New Zealand, particularly while on temporary release. It’s been reported that Smith isn't well liked among inmates, and it isn't hard to see why – he’s done his absolute best to ruin a good thing for everyone.
Smith is a bad example. Having run an electronics business and completed two degrees from behind bars, he’s nothing like the average prisoner. There is no doubt that Smith was a poor choice for temporary release. By Corrections’ own policies, he shouldn't have been eligible – he was allowed out because of his minimum security classification, but that classification is based on his behaviour in prison rather than the risk that he posed if set free. That risk, it seems obvious now, was very high.
Smith has a long history of abusing trust, including convictions for fraud. He molested a young boy under his parents’ noses for three years, and the murder for which he received life imprisonment was committed while violating the conditions of his bail. He is evidently both devious and manipulative.
This escape has ramifications for Corrections that will likely be felt for a long time. By thumbing his nose at us from Brazil, Smith has left the Department with no choice but to make a strong showing and enact significant changes, many of which will make temporary release much harder to get for prisoners, regardless of how eligible they are.
First and foremost, temporary release has been suspended, and on its return it will be limited to 12 hours at a time, and prisoners will be GPS monitored. Smith, by contrast, was released for 72 hours and was monitored only by a friend who was supposed to stay with him throughout the release. These conditions can be waived, but only by the National Commissioner.
Temporary releases will also be subject to a lot more oversight, primarily by a “temporary release advisory panel”, which will review all release applications.
These are potentially good things – Philip Smith has exposed an important weakness that needs to be shored up. It’s important, however, that we don’t lose sight of the value of things like temporary release.
Temporary releases are essential to prisoner rehabilitation, and although they go wrong sometimes, we really don’t have a better option. As we talked about in another recent blog, a gradual tapering-off of imprisonment is vastly preferable to a sudden release, especially with those on long sentences, and shouldn't be seen as a soft option. Learning to return to normal life is a slow process, and can be very hard. Many prisoners never really had a normal life to begin with. It’s when things get tough that we see a return to crime.
Let’s ensure as best we can that escapes like Smith’s don’t happen again, but let us not throw the baby out with the bath water by killing off important rehabilitative tools.