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.

Comments (10)

by Tim Watkin on October 09, 2011
Tim Watkin

Pita Sharples might like a slice of that cake for his Whare Oranga Ake.

Did you see him on Q+A today? Asked about Wiri, he didn't dismiss the need altogether, saying:

We’ve got a system that puts people in jail for just about anything, and so if you’re going to do that, you need somewhere to put them, and nobody wants them in their backyard. But what I’m saying is we’ve got to change that whole philosophy, that whole kaupapa, and deal with it.

But he also said that 80% of people in prison shouldn't be there! Let the debate begin...

by Chris Webster on October 09, 2011
Chris Webster

Agree with Dr Pita Sharples - the whole kaupapa's got to be changed. And I doubt if he was referring just to the present and unacceptable over-representation of Maori at every stage of the criminal justice process.

In 2007 Justice reported:

Though forming just 12.5 per cent of the general population aged 15 and over; over 142 per cent of all criminal apprehensions involve a person that id as Maori as do 50 per cent of all persons in prison.   For Maori women the picture is even more actue: they comprise around 60 per cent of the female prison population.

The 2007 data showed that 4,000 Maori were in prison - six times the number one might expect [even moderate success in addressing the issue of Maori over-rep could therefore reduce the size of the prison estate by over 30 per cent or 2000+ beds].

Roger - your concerns are validated also by this 2007 research.

So what the hell is causing this over-representation?

Over-representation in offender statistics is mirrored also by over-representation of Maori as victims of crime - a result of the fact that much crime occurs within families, social networks or immediate neigbourhoods.

The effects of this ever-growing situation is catastrophic both for Maori as a people and given their position as tangata whenus and for NZ as a whole. Far too many Maori women and men during what might otherwise be the most product years of their lives end up enmeshed in the harsh-conflict ridden and potentially alienating sphere of CJS.

The effects on racial harmony are also pernicious. The figures lend themselves to extremist interpretations: at one end some accuse the CJS of being brutally racist as either intentionally or unintentionally destructive to the interests and well-being of Maori as a people.  At the other end there are those who dismiss all Maori people as constitutionally 'criminally inclined' and therefore deserve the label.

In 2010 Government announced private prison management for wiri -

Bil English argued the government was open to greater use of private sector expertise if it delivered enhanced services and better value for tax-payers. English added those substantial gains (of PPP) will leave more money available for other vital infrastructure priorities like schools, hospitals and roads'. Yadda, yadda.

Collins said: 'Currently it costs average of $91k annually to keep a person in prison and we owe it to taxpayers to actively find ways of reducing those costs while improving standards and security across the board'. Yadda, yadda.

But of course neither English nor Collins explained how the use of a custodial PPP (20-25 year contract) would reduce the overall prison population or reduce the over-represenation of Maori inmates. The role of Maori (Collins explained) would be involved in providing Maori specific services'.

Ah now I wonder what they might be? My cynicism is real.

I'm wth you Tim - this debate must continue.

by alexb on October 09, 2011

I'm reminded of a slogan that used to be painted on an anarchist house in Te Aro, "If prisons worked then we wouldn't need them." Not suggesting its true, but it does make you think.

by BeShakey on October 10, 2011

It made me think whoever wrote it was stupid.

by Roger Brooking on October 11, 2011
Roger Brooking

Now John Key has even acknowledged that a prison at Wiri 'may not be needed.' That opens up the debate. But he's still leaving the door open - saying they may need a new one at Wiri so they can close older prisons - yeah right! That'll be the day.

by Roger Brooking on October 11, 2011
Roger Brooking

Tim:  Whare Oranga Ake (basically self-care units outside the prison fence) are unlikely to make any difference. There is already a 20 bed self-care unit at Ngawha prison that closed down soon after it opened in 2008 because Corrections tightened up the security classification rules - as a result of which there are now only about 100 prisoners in the whole country allowed to 'live' and work outside the wire.

The $20 million already allocated to Whare Oranga Ake  is likely to be more funding poured down the toilet by the Corrections Department. This topic is discussed in my new book about the justice system: Flying Blind - How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct.

by Tim Watkin on October 11, 2011
Tim Watkin

Interesting to see Key backing away a little. It can be spun as a positive for him, as a result of getting crime down. But it takes away the red meat for the 'lock 'em up' crowd, who may not see falling crime rates as sufficient reason to stop building prisons...

I think English's statements that building more prisons is a moral failure has enormous implications though. That's where the action is in this debate – watch to see whether the politics win or whether he puts his foot down and refuses to keep borrowing to spend on prisons when he's cutting public sector budgets everywhere else.

by Roger Brooking on October 12, 2011
Roger Brooking

Although it has nothing to do with reduced crime. The need for prison beds is down because judges are imposing more community based sentences such as Home detention and Community Detention - up by 50% since Labour changed the law in 2007.

by alexb on October 12, 2011

Roger - Do you agree that home D and community service are helping with lowering the crime rate? From the few people I have known to have done jail time, it sounds like it is essentially Crime University.

by Roger Brooking on October 13, 2011
Roger Brooking

The use of community sentences (instead of prison) may reduce re-offending a little. But whether the crime rate is down is not entirely clear. Crime stats are affected by so many factors - including the extent to which crime is reported by the public. Most sexual offending is not reported for instance.

Also the police are now trying to use diversion more often for low level offenders instead of charging them in court. That reduces the crime stats as well. 

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