AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - AUGUST 01: Labour Corrections Spokesperson Kelvin Davis addresses a rally at Mt Eden Prison on August 1, 2015 in Auckland, New Zealand. Prison management company Serco is under pressure over reports of prisoner abuse. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The fate of NZ’s mega-prison will be the first big test of Labour’s commitment to reform

In opposition, Kelvin Davis was a vocal advocate for an overhaul of the lock-’em-up approach. In government, will he walk the talk, or cow to the reactionaries, asks criminologist Liam Martin

Construction is set to begin next year on the biggest prison New Zealand has ever seen. A facility for 2000 prisoners is to be built alongside Waikeria prison in rural Waikato, creating an institution cleared by resource consents to hold 3000 people. To put that in perspective, Rimutaka Prison, north of Wellington, is currently the largest in the country and has a capacity of just over 1000. The mega-prison at Waikeria would be uncharted territory on the path towards mass imprisonment in New Zealand.

The surprise election of Labour puts these plans in question. New corrections minister Kelvin Davis takes office on the back of a campaign pledge to reduce the prison population by 30%. In opposition he was a vocal prisoner rights advocate and the face of public campaigns against private operator Serco. In April, he offered this assessment of the portfolio he now governs: “Our Corrections system is the closest we get to building a bonfire and unquestioningly throwing taxpayer cash into it, to keep it burning indefinitely.”

Kelvin Davis is also the first ever Māori corrections minister. The history through which our criminal justice institutions were imported from Britain, silencing the Māori justice processes that existed before colonisation, is continued to the present in the deep monoculturalism of our criminal law and almost total absence of Māori at the highest levels of the justice sector. The most striking feature of New Zealand prisons is the large number of Māori behind the walls, making up 50% of male and 62% of female prisoners. Now one Māori stands at the head of this system.

Kelvin Davis at a rally outside Mt Eden Prison in 2015. Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Davis will face immense pressure in the coming weeks and months. He leads a progressive wing of Labour that is fiercely opposed on criminal justice even within the party ranks. New Police Minister Stuart Nash is a get tough advocate who famously called for a prisoner to be scalped after a judge ordered that Corrections return their confiscated hairpiece. Greg O’Connor spent his time as president of the Police Association campaigning to import the “zero tolerance” tactics of the NYPD to New Zealand. Labour’s law and order arm is joined in coalition by New Zealand First, which campaigned on a host of reactionary measures that would greatly expand prison numbers, from mandatory minimum sentencing laws to lowering the age of criminal responsibility.

Governing this unstable coalition is Jacinda Ardern, famous for a broad smile and campaign promise to be relentlessly positive. It is an image that sits uneasily with plans to build a gigantic prison. Ardern made no mention of criminal justice in her maiden speech as prime minister, in which she outlined policy priorities for the first 100 days. In opposition, she was broadly progressive on these issues, calling for prisoners to have their right to vote returned, denouncing three strikes as “an ugly piece of law,” and supporting the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

On policing Ardern has been more expansionist. Herself the daughter of a police officer, Ross Ardern, she has been a staunch advocate for increasing investment in police. And the headline justice policy in the Labour-New Zealand First coalition agreement – which includes only four short bullet points on law and order – is a pledge the government will “strive towards” employing 1800 new officers. Growing police numbers is incompatible with the goal of reducing the prison population. More police means more people detected and charged. Expanding this entry point will have flow-on effects that grow all other areas of criminal justice, from court caseloads to prison numbers.

Ardern and Labour already face the very real problem of a prison system filled to overflowing. Prisoners are being double-bunked and stacked together in close quarters, constantly moved within and between institutions to wherever there is space, pushed into shipping containers and other forms of makeshift accommodation. The Public Service Association has expressed “grave concerns” for the safety of staff working in these volatile conditions.

The solution that Labour receives from the previous government is all too familiar: build a prison. Never mind we have already built six prisons since 2005, littering the country from Ngawha in the north to Otago in the south.

The mega-prison at Waikeria will be a place of concentrated pathology and mental illness on a scale not seen before in New Zealand, crowding together thousands of people in desperate situations suffering multiple layers of disadvantage. It will pluck already marginalised men from Auckland and Hamilton, severing their relationships with the outside world by forcing them deep into rural Waikato for years at a time – then dumping them back in the city alone. Prisons designed to promote rehabilitation are small and local, encouraging family and community integration. The basic structure of the proposed prison – huge and isolated – will make it even more than others a breeding ground for criminality.

Kelvin Davis has already identified a way for Labour to ease overcrowding without prison building: change bail laws to cut the number of people imprisoned while they wait for trial. The Bail Amendment Act passed in 2013 expanded pre-trial detention far more than intended, and in the time since, the number of people on remand has swollen from 1600 to 3000. Reversing these changes would immediately end the overcrowding crisis. Another option is amending the Parole Act to expand the use of early release. And there is precedent here: in 1985, the Labour Government loosened parole laws to release a 1000 prisoners – a third of the total muster at the time.

Jacinda Ardern has the charisma to front these changes as part of a relentlessly positive criminal justice policy, championing a vision of closing prisons and building houses, schools and hospitals instead. The key benefit of decarceration is that it frees the immense resources sunk in prisons for spending on popular programmes that actually work to make a society safe. The build at Waikeria is part of a sweeping $2.5 billion package to expand prison capacity. Scrapping this package would provide enough money for the government to double the building and housing budget for the next six years.

New Zealand can be a global leader in the move away from mass imprisonment. In recent times we have gained the wrong kind of international reputation in criminal justice, rising up the OECD tables for incarceration rates and routinely criticised by the United Nations for high levels of Māori imprisonment. We could instead be an incubator for developing programmes to address harm and reduce crime that do not rely on locking people in cages. Delegates from all over the world already travel here to learn about restorative justice.

During their last period in office, successive Labour governments oversaw the largest prison expansion in New Zealand history. They introduced a suite of new legislation with the stated purpose of increasing prison numbers, and funded a Regional Prisons Development Project that for a decade was one of the country’s largest construction projects.

There are hopeful signs the new government will leave a different legacy. The litmus test comes early in its first term – will Labour build the mega-prison?

Liam Martin is a lecturer in criminology at Victoria University of Wellington

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