The inhumanity of incarceration – an ADHD Pākehā looks at incarceration in a New Zealand context

STRONG CONTENT WARNING: Sexual assault, abuse, substance abuse, incarceration, suicide, mental health stigma, youth issues related to these. If you are ok with these issues scroll down to read – I highly recommend you do.
(If you are reading on phone where spacers don’t work properly – sorry.)


DISCLAIMER: I have been a victim of multiple sexual assaults. I have been abused physically when younger pretty much all the time until age 14, faced discrimination and was bullied in workplaces constantly – in all but one of the ~15 jobs I’ve had in my ~18 years in the workforce. I know what it’s like to want retribution, but that is different to making people accountable. Accountability allows growth and healing to ensure behaviour doesn’t repeat and this cannot be done with retribution.

I also want you to know that in most of these cases – people who commit offences are likely to have been subject to these things themselves. That doesn’t excuse their behaviour. It doesn’t absolve them of the guilt, but it can explain why people hurt people. There are also structural issues that contribute to this behaviour.

I believe incarceration is wrong morally and ethically– incarceration doesn’t work as a tool of justice how you think it does. Shaming people doesn’t help them grow into better people. It isolates them further. Our recidivism rate (the rate at which people reoffend) is over 60%.

I’ll briefly touch on racism and how privilege stopped me from ending up in youth caging facilities and later adult human caging facilities (euphemistically called Prisons – will only refer to it like this if quoting academic stuff – otherwise you don’t get to hide from what this is – they don’t) – there are far better articles about racism in justice systems. I as a Pākehā can’t speak to these issues well enough as someone with no experience of either human caging facilities or racism – I will link them at the end.


My mental health history

A bit about me first. Here’s my mental health in “official” medical records vs when I knew.

In counselling at age 14-17 through Child, Youth and Family Services.

Depression (diagnosed at 25 – present since age ~10)

Tried to get diagnosed for ADHD at age 26 – denied by public healthcare after a six month wait – told that I didn’t have it, it was depression – this is known as medical gaslighting.

Depression + Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder – got diagnosed privately at age 29 – the first time I filled my script – the pharmacist asked if I really needed it – this trapped me in the denial stage of grief about getting a diagnosis for the next 6 years until confirmed by another psychiatrist.

DSM-V is updated to add Adult ADHD diagnosis at age 30.

Depression + ADHD + Anxiety disorder (diagnosed at 33, result of stigmatisation and bullying due to ADHD – which I doubted I had or understood at all – thanks to that pharmacist).

Major mental health crisis due to justice sensitivity at age 36 – call 111 – told to meditate 3 times daily by psychiatrist, call 111 again two days later – get tons of drugs, but no talk therapy – actually got an appointment in public healthcare system for talk therapy after a suicide attempt in week 9. 11 weeks after I first called 111 to get help I get to talk to a psychologist.

Finally received full diagnosis and explanation of all comorbid mental health diagnoses.: Depression + Anxiety + ADHD + Autism Spectrum Disorder (diagnosed at 37, present since birth, only knew at 36 because it’s so poorly understood – only through Twitter education did I realise I might have it – took an online test – got diagnosed officially in January 2021)

Things that I know I have through extensive research and testing, that are still undiagnosed: Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia (found out about them at age 35 – explained all my terrible school work I still have, why I struggled with essay exams constantly, and my uniform bad math ability – even though I have a Bachelor of Software Engineering).

Things that I had when growing up undiagnosed for ADHD: A Conduct Disorder (ages 5 to age 20ish – I have theories as to why it dissipated around here, but they are unproven).


“I would have been in human caging facilities, but my skin colour prevented that.”
A single case study in undiagnosed mental health, criminality, and substance abuse

I was a ADHD/ASD child growing up in a world that is not catered to this – that is traumatic alone.

I take responsibility for the things I have done, I have guilt for all the things that I have done – I did bad things. You cannot make me feel shame – I am not a bad person. I doubt few who you consider to be bad people actually are. Especially when given love and support to grow – like I was.


When I was young, I was friends with my bullies, they were the only people who would talk to me – I thought they were being nice to me – even though they rubbed dog faeces in my hair, gave me regular black eyes and beatings, and the one time I fought back I got the permanent nickname “psycho”. All of these were reported to my school, they never did anything about it.

Teachers were also my bullies. I had a conduct disorder of some sort, I think as a result of growing up with undiagnosed ADHD/Autism – I had severe emotional reactions to stuff. I ran away a lot. I disrupted classes. I was a stereotypical “problem” child.

The combination of these two conditions meant I often did a lot of stuff with my bullies. Most notably in memory at school – teasing other kids especially – none of them deserved it (have a permanent playback loop for all the times this happened), getting into fights with my bullies which they initiated all of the time (I’d often get caught for striking back – and be punished here), harassing girls to kiss me when I was in primary (seriously teach kids consent ffs).

Outside of school – I got into a lot of trespassing, property damage, we threw stones at cars. I also inhaled butane in public [I’m lucky to be alive – I got caught doing this and my parents intervened – most people die].

When I was 14 I got caught wagging (being truant from school) and shoplifting clove cigarettes at the same time. The police were called. My 3rd form dean got involved. My punishment? I got banned from 277 mall for two years with a trespass order from police. An extra day at school after school had finished to help clean the school (which finished in two days), I had to tell my Mum personally (which I did), and it went on my official record, but no suspension or expulsion. No youth justice involvement. Diversion but for Pākehā people.

I became a full on loner at school the next year – taking refuge in the library or not attending at all. I also went to the school guidance counsellor of my own volition for sexual assault that happened in childhood and was referred to Child Youth and Family Services for counselling.

This is when I kinda stopped a lot of anti-social behavior, I assessed who my friends were, considering they abandoned me when I got caught shoplifting. With this counselling support, and my keen interest in drama (being successful at school plays as extracurricular activities), I was a lot calmer here and more ok as a person – I still hated school, performed erratically, got bullied by students and staff – but I had good friends in productions with me – and my social isolation dissipated for the first time in my life. I wasn’t using abusing substances and didn’t feel a need to.

The school hate finally got to me, and I decided to drop out for university as I thought that’s what my parents wanted. This was a bad idea. Because I dropped out of school at 17 – I no longer qualified for counselling sessions. The gap between youth and adult support still exists. And it’s like throwing people off a cliff.

At university I never attended. I wasn’t doing subjects I was interested in, I was doing what I thought my family expected of me. When I turned 18 – I hit the clubbing scene. I started abusing a lot of substances. I dropped out of university, I worked fulltime at starbucks.

I nearly died on multiple occasions. I put close friends in ambulances. I breathed for people who had stopped breathing. I dealt to support my own addiction. There were a number of sexual assaults here with men. Then I had a massive major depressive episode after a particularly long binge and my life nearly came to an end. I luckily had family who would take me back, with lots of judgement but they still took me back. I screwed over flatmates to go home, I still regret it.

I managed to get a stable job in IT and I was good at it – I could “perform” in inbound customer service, I thrived because it met a skillset I needed – taking incomplete information from low understanding users and identifying root cause problems – I am great at this.

I still used substances once I turned my life around, but only on weekends – and I still abused them at times. I had found a consistent group of friends, then bad stuff started happening to me and my friends in the group due to drug use. No one died, but I am pretty sure we all carry a lot of trauma from this time period, some of my mental health issues were probably exacerbated by this time period.

I got out of the “scene”. I got clean. I still did things that were ADHD related – car crashes, justice sensitivity issues, blaming others for things that were my fault because I had no idea wtf was going on with me. I wasn’t a great person for a lot of my life. I’ll admit that, I feel guilt for it.

I still struggled with mental health, I have lashed out and put myself into harms way due to justice sensitivity. I nearly died last year – it was the closest I had ever been.

I didn’t really start getting properly mentally healthy until I accepted I have autism. It explained so much behaviour, and from that point onward I have pledged to dedicating myself to making people understand these conditions, the price we pay for having them in a non-accomodating world – and the consequences of having them for those without privilege.

As a result of my diagnoses with love and support – I have improved. That is the case for all people with mental health conditions who I know – given the right support.


There are a number of times during my life I was given leniency by police, times when I could have been put in the youth justice system, but they decided from my recollection that “it wouldn’t be good for a kid like me”. When I was an adult they had lots of probable cause to search me and instead I just got told “maybe just go home now”. I didn’t know what this meant then, or that it was offered only to certain people. I was saved because I am a Pākehā man. I’ve known this is the case since studying criminology at university. I know this because I’ve seen the statistics. I know from internal police reports. I know from every report ever written that I have read on our justice system since 1987.

I know because I’ve seen racism by police first hand, and I’ve had racism explained to me when accessing critical mental health services – a cop bragged about giving mucus jellyfish to one of his regulars when on the way to the hospital – this is an obsessive thought for me now. I think about it and mention it a lot because it was horrific for me to hear when trying to seek help – but imagine what happens to this cops “regular” who might have needed help like I did during his life. (The IPCA is the cops, there’s no way to report this stuff – they are not independent despite what they claim).

The ‘Burden of ADHD’

Early diagnosis is way better to help this, but adult diagnosis is still super important. The consequences of going undiagnosed or untreated can ruin your life and your self-esteem. Even self-diagnosing and seeing people talk about it helps. Look up the ASRS ADHD test, the MURS ADHD test, and the MEWS ADHD test – if you score highly on these – you should seek an official diagnosis – and you can say you have ADHD self-diagnosed (because of barriers I describe in previous articles here) if these problems occur frequently in daily life.

Below is the pull quote from the consensus statement on treatment and diagnosis of Adult ADHD. Read through that statement. Look back at my mental health history and problems I had. Think about why I care about this so much now.

The impairments associated with ADHD across the lifespan are impressive. ADHD is associated with learning difficulties, school dropout, underachievement at work, frequent job changes, chronic fatigue, financial problems, gambling and internet use, home and traffic accidents leading to increased mortality rates, relationship difficulties and intimate partner violence, early onset of addiction, teenage pregnancies and sexual transmitted diseases, a two-fold increased smoking rate, an increased number of suicide attempts and self-harm in adolescents, and increased criminality. Moreover, physical disorders and ailments may become chronic due to forgetfulness, health problems induced by a negative lifestyle, poor eating and sleeping habits, and lack of health care follow-up. ADHD has further been associated with auto-immune diseases, obesity, and physical multi-morbidity. In one large study, individuals with more than 4 diseases had over more than 3-fold higher odds of possible ADHD. The risk of diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and cancer, that are related to obesity, may be increased as well. An additional burden on family life may be the presence of one or more children with ADHD, which happens frequently due to the high familial risks of the disorder.

Clinicians should also be aware that high functioning adults with ADHD may not present with a typical pattern of functional impairments in their daily life. Adaptive or compensatory skills can develop that mask the more overt behavioral problems related to ADHD. Some may find work that is well suited to their symptom profile. Furthermore, in ADHD neurocognitive performance and inattentive symptoms are sensitive to the salience of task activities. Such people with ADHD may excel in certain aspects of their lives, but still be impaired in others, such as more routine and mundane tasks such as paying bills, looking after the house, or developing stable social relationships. Problems can include subjective distress from symptoms such as mental and physical restlessness, sleep problems, and emotional instability; and the use of drugs such as cannabis or alcohol to reduce these symptoms.

Updated European Consensus Statement on diagnosis and treatment of adult ADHD

A brief summary of our justice system(s) in New Zealand

Here is a summary. We have three justice systems (I’ll provide resources for you to read more on this topic if you are interested):

  • one for rich white people (who almost never get prosecuted, even less go to human caging facilities)
  • one for very few minorities who are rich and poor white people (who usually get prosecuted, who sometimes go to human caging facilities)
  • one for Māori and Pasifika people and all other not mentioned ethnic minorities (where the default is prosecution followed by going to human caging facilities).

Mental health prevalence in NZ Adult Human Caging Facilities (Data from 2016):

In this study, prisoners were found to have a high prevalence of both lifetime and 12-month diagnosis of mental health and substance use disorders. This included nearly all (91%) prisoners having a lifetime diagnosis of a mental health or substance use disorder and 42% having a lifetime prevalence of a comorbid mental health and substance use disorder. Over half (62%) of prisoners had a 12-month diagnosis of a mental health or substance use disorder and one in five (20%) had a 12-month diagnosis of comorbidity for both disorders. With this high prevalence of comorbidity, it is important for treatment provided in prison to address both mental health and substance abuse treatment needs concurrently.

Comorbid substance use disorders and mental health disorders
among New Zealand prisoners

91%!

91%…

We’ve failed as a society. I mean we are caging them because they often have wound up in human caging facilities due to undiagnosed or diagnosed mental health conditions that are untreated.

But wait, how many of the 91% had substance abuse problems?

Lets take a look:

The majority of (87%) prisoners had a lifetime diagnosis of a substance use disorder, compared to 12% in the general population.

COMORBID SUBSTANCE USE DISORDERS AND MENTAL HEALTH DISORDERS
AMONG NEW ZEALAND PRISONERS

87%

87%…

So a large number here will have been committing crimes related to substance abuse. The non-violent offenders shouldn’t be here. They just shouldn’t at all as a start. It’s inhumane to treat people like this, no one gets better incarcerated.

At least we are treating these people in human caging facilities if they need help right? They probably get help while incarcerated.

Nearly half (47%) of prisoners with a 12-month diagnosis of a mental health or substance use disorder had mental health treatment in the preceding year, suggesting high rates of unmet treatment needs. The lowest rate of treatment received in the past year was for substance use disorders (42%), compared to 59% for prisoners with a mood disorder. Men were also significantly less likely to have sought any mental health treatment compared to women.

COMORBID SUBSTANCE USE DISORDERS AND MENTAL HEALTH DISORDERS
AMONG NEW ZEALAND PRISONERS

53% of people currently in human caging facilities receive no mental health support, despite having mental health conditions. This is not justice. This is an abomination.

End Human Caging Facilities


START FIXING ROOT CAUSE ISSUES WITH MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT.

If you are mad about this, and you absolutely should be furious. Please consider reading up on alternative justice – start reading into abolition.

People Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA) is a prison abolitionist organisation working for a fairer, safer, and more just Aotearoa. I am a member – support their cause.

Conclusion

If you have retribution as your goal, we will never agree, and from my extensive research – society will never get better.

I wanted to make this more specifically about ADHD – which 25.5% of prisoners are estimated to be in most prison populations according to the ADHD study I link in the references, with a higher incidence in youth human caging facilities, but it’s not fair to other people suffering if I only show those who have this particular problem.

Human caging facilities are awful. They are racist, they are degrading and dehumanising, people in there often need alternative help. People get better with love and support. No one ever gets better (at best they might get “ok”) in a carceral context. Become an abolitionist.

ANTI-RACISM IS ABOLITION.

Essential Reading on Prison Abolition – taken directly from PAPA’s FAQ.

Further Reading and References:

Published by roryreckons

I am an independent ADHD/Autism advocate and researcher. I am also diagnosed with both. I am training in 2021 to become an ICF Accredited ADHD coach. I write mainly about ADHD/Autism issues, but will also discuss morality, abolition, and current affairs occasionally.

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