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Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis. (Photo credit FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP/Getty Images)
Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis. (Photo credit FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP/Getty Images)

SocietyJune 13, 2018

When is an expanded prison not a mega prison?

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis. (Photo credit FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP/Getty Images)
Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis. (Photo credit FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP/Getty Images)

In today’s Cheat Sheet, what exactly turns a prison into a mega-prison? And how do the just-announced plans for Waikeria Prison fit in?

What’s all this then?

Plans have finally been released for what’s going to happen at Waikeria Prison, the lockup near Ōtorohanga in the middle of the North Island. Under the previous government’s plans it was going to be expanded to 2000 beds, turning it into a ‘mega-prison’. But now the high security facility there is going to be replaced by a new high security one with 500 beds, thus making it not a mega prison – more like a medium prison. It was described in November last year as the “first big test of Labour’s commitment to reform” after now-Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis talked a huge game in opposition. Labour bravely responded by stepping up to the mark and promptly kicking the issue as far down the road as they could, which brings us up to the present day.

What’s the state of the prisons in the first place?

The prisoner population has already been tipped to rise significantly. As well as that, the prisons around the country are pretty much already full. A recent report suggested that there were about 300 free spaces in prisons – that’s out of a total population of more than 10,000. Waikeria Prison is already is pretty bad shape, so the whole facility is going to be replaced.

And that’s even with double-bunking in some prisons, which is when two prisoners share the same cell, which itself leads to much higher rates of fighting, sexual assault and abuse. But it does save space, and law-and-order lock’em up types like David Garrett and Judith Collins argue that prisoners have given up the right to live with any sort of basic dignity and humanity. Under the new plans, about half the beds at the new Waikeria facility will still be double bunked.

So what made the original plans a mega prison?

Mega, as defined by Google’s dictionary thing, means very large, or even huge. The original plans were to bring it up to 2000 beds, which would have made it by far the largest prison in the country. Under the new plans, there would still be more prisoners across the two Waikeria facilities – 174 more. So it’s arguably still pretty mega.

This still doesn’t answer the question of how the government intends to find room for all the prisoners.

Yep, they announced funding in the last Budget for what will effectively be pop-up prison cells (or “rapid build modular units” to use the ridiculous jargon) that can be added on to existing prisons. All up, funding at the budget was announced for 600 of these.

Why does the government have to keep locking people up though? 

Actually, they’re trying to do a lot less of that generally. Recently announced justice reforms included moves to put convicted people on home detention if their sentences are shorter than two years, and make it easier for accused people to get bail. Labour’s goal is to lower the current prison population by 30% over 15 years, which will be incredibly difficult given current forecasts.

I bet they’d free up heaps of space if they freed all the locked up stoners.

Well, no. Drug offenders make up just 13% of the current prison population. That includes people who manufacture and sell P, for example. It’s not people in there for possession of a 0.6 gram tinnie, or who had a bong rolling around on their floor when the police pulled them over. A lot of New Zealand’s drug laws and policies are stupid for a whole lot of reasons, but locking people up for personal-use possession of class C drugs isn’t one of them. Of course, there are a lot of people in prison who have drug problems, that have then led to them committing crimes. But that’s a different matter altogether than locking people up specifically for being drug users.

Do prisons actually work though? 

Depends what you want them to do. If the point of prisons is to keep potentially dangerous people out of the community, then yes, they work up to a point. If the point is to create a better society as a whole, then the answer is no, not really. They’ve been described in various places as a finishing school for criminals, or memorably by former PM Bill English, a “moral and fiscal failure”.

Why can’t prisoners be rehabilitated?

They can! There is a tiny minority of people in prison who seem completely irredeemable – think murderer Graeme Burton or serial rapist Stewart Murray Wilson. Such people, to put it bluntly, should not be allowed out of prison. But they are not the norm at all.

One promising, if small, development from the Waikeria plan is the announcement that 100 of the beds will be in a seperate facility for prisoners with mental health issues, to help them with their rehabilitation away from the general prison population. It’s the first time that has been done in New Zealand, and if it’s implemented properly, could help drive significant changes in how people with mental health issues are treated by Corrections. It’s one of the single most important factors that could be addressed to bring down the rate of reoffending.

There’s also evidence that smaller facilities generally have better rehabilitation outcomes.

It sounds like this is all pretty good.

That’s not necessarily the case. The town of Ōtorohanga itself has been a bit screwed here – like it or not, the expanded mega prison would have been a huge economic boon for the town. It would have created hundreds of jobs directly, along with a huge amount of ancillary economic development.

And one real problem with not locking people up willy nilly is that some people are not going to be rehabilitated, and that won’t really be clear until they commit a crime. It is basically a certainty that some people will be harmed by those who under different policies would have been in prison. A lot of the people in prison have lived deeply violent lives, and that causes damage that can’t easily be undone. It’s also a certainty that some people will not be harmed when they otherwise would have been, either by someone who wouldn’t have otherwise been rehabilitated, or by the prison system itself. But that’s a counterfactual, so it’s impossible to point to cases of that.

The final word:

All things considered, Waikeria is still probably not the place you want to end up.

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