New Zealand's strange relationship with prisons

New Zealand is widely perceived as a safe country and yet we don't seem to feel safe -- and 20,000 Kiwis spend time in prison each year

Compared with other Western democracies, New Zealand seems to be keen on sending its citizens to prison. Our prison population has been rising for the last 50 years and in October 2010, reached a total of 8,892 inmates. New Zealand now locks up 199 people per 100,000 of its population.

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies at Kings College in London, this gives us the second highest rate of imprisonment out of 29 countries in the Western world. This is higher than Britain and Canada, even though those countries both have greater rates of violent crime than New Zealand. And it puts us in the company of Third World countries like Gabon, Namibia and Libya (currently in a state of civil war) which have very similar rates of imprisonment to ours. It even puts us higher than Colombia, despite the drug-related murder and violence going on there.


NZ perceived as a peaceful country


This is very strange when you consider that from an international perspective, New Zealand is perceived as a peaceful country. For the last two years in a row, New Zealand has topped the Global Peace Index issued by the Institute for Economics and Peace -- out of 149 countries. The index is based on 23 indicators including corruption, violence, crime rates, military spending and access to primary education. Other countries in the top ten include Iceland, Japan, Austria and all five Scandinavian countries.


In 2010, New Zealand was also ranked third by the United Nations (out of 169 countries) in terms of ‘human development’ - defined as ‘the economic and political freedoms required to live long, healthy and creative lives’ based on information about life expectancy, schooling, income and a number of other factors.


Perceptions of ‘safety’


Despite these rankings, New Zealanders continue to believe that violent crime is out of control. The same United Nations report that placed New Zealand third in the world in terms of human development also assessed global perceptions of crime and safety.Between 2006 and 2009, only 57% of New Zealanders reported feeling ‘safe’.


Internationally, New Zealanders feel no more secure than the citizens of former communist states like Bulgaria (where only 56% feel safe) and Albania (54%). We’re also on a par with Middle Eastern countries like Iran (55%) and Lebanon (56%) and African countries such as Angola (53%), Nigeria (51%) and Uganda (51%).


New Zealand’s response – ‘lock ‘em up’


There’s something wrong here. In the United States, where the murder rate is four times higher than in New Zealand, 75% of the population report feeling safe. In other words, public perceptions of safety in New Zealand are seriously out of touch with reality.




As a result, for those who commit crime, prison has increasingly become New Zealand’s punishment of choice. The only Western country with a higher rate of imprisonment than ours is the United States -- which locks up a massive 748 people per 100,000. The imprisonment rate for Maori is 704 per 100,000 of Maori population, which is not far off the US rate.


Disturbing figures

These are disturbing figures, of which most New Zealanders are probably unaware. There is a similar lack of awareness about the number of New Zealanders sent to prison each year. The daily prison muster is currently at 8,755 -- but this figure is deceptive, as the prison population is very fluid.


Fourteen thousand New Zealanders are sent to prison on remand each year, most for only a few weeks or months at a time.Adding to the transient nature of the prison population, around 80% of sentenced prisoners serve less than six months and are ‘maintained’ in prison without the opportunity to attend rehabilitation programmes. The result is that, altogether, more than 20,000 New Zealanders spend time in prison each year.