Is New Zealand becoming a prison colony?

The Corrections Department wants to build a new 1,000 bed prison at Wiri for $424 million - based on justice sector projections from 2010. The projections for 2011, however, show a new prison is no longer needed

Does New Zealand need to build a new 1,000 bed prison at Wiri? In May this year, the EPA examined this question after Environment Minister Nick Smith requested the EPA to establish a Board of Inquiry because:

“The proposal was of widespread public interest, affected more than one region or district and the process would assist the Crown in meeting its obligations for safety and security”.

The hearing took three weeks and no doubt cost the taxpayer a million or two. Throughout those three weeks, officials from Corrections argued that the Department needed to build a new prison because the justice sector projections indicated that by 2016, Corrections would need the extra beds. Mr Bole of Corrections, general manager for the Wiri project, said at the hearing:

“Analysis demonstrates by September 2015 Corrections will no longer be able to accommodate the prisoner population and by 2016 the short fall will be 1,243 places”.

The proposal to build the prison was opposed by numerous groups who argued that that a new prison was not required. I was one who opposed the plan and it turns out, if I may say so, that I and others of the same view were right.

The latest justice sector projections have just been released - one week after the EPA decision endorsing the new prison. They show that in the past decade, the prison population grew by 45.6 per cent – but that in the next 10 years, it will fall by 6.2 per cent.  

Judith Collins attributes the projected fall to new police tactics that have seen fewer people brought before the courts; VUW criminology professor, John Pratt says its due to the falling crime rate and ageing population experienced in most western countries; my take is that it’s mainly due to the greater use (by 40 to 50%) of Home Detention and community based sentences by judges.

Whatever the cause, General Manager of the Prison Service, Dr Brendan Anstiss was quoted in the Dominion Post saying:

"There are ups and down in the forecast each year and each month, but in modern history this is the first sustained drop. It's a big change – when you see that we've been growing for 80-odd years and now it's predicting a drop. The public service has done a lot of very smart work on this and over the next two or three years we're going to see the need for prison beds drop.”

Corrections Minister Judith Collins even admitted that the falling crime and prison population rates were a "dramatic drop”.

In other words, the Corrections Department got it wrong - and there will be no shortfall in beds. But no one in Government has quite woken up to the fact that a new prison is no longer needed. Except Finance Minister, Bill English. 

He’s questioned the need for more prisons calling them a 'fiscal and moral failure' and suggested New Zealand was at risk of becoming 'a prison colony'.

Ironically, he made this prophetic statement in the same week that Corrections officials were putting their case to the EPA to build the new prison at Wiri – estimated by Corrections to cost $424 million.

Since we no longer need a new prison, that money could now be spent in more worthwhile areas such as education and health – and in particular used to provide more treatment for alcohol and drug abuse, which remains one of the main drivers of crime.

The money could even be used to address the drastic shortage of half-way houses in the community - a strategy which would slow down the rate at which inmates currently return to prison.  This would reduce the need for prison beds even further - and the need for more prisons.