A NZ Mega-Prison – Will It Work?

Situation

The Department of Correction propose to build a 3000-bed prison at Waikeria which would initially house 25% of the national prison population, and be almost three times larger than the current largest prison, Rimutaka (1067 prisoners).  It is also larger than similar prisons elsewhere; the Titan prisons proposed in the UK were for 2,500 prisoners, and the largest prison in Western Europe was originally built for 2,600 prisoners, but now holds 3,500.

The Waikeria Prison proposal is considered the fastest and most cost-effective way of housing the growing number of inmates; Corrections can use land it already owns and contends that a mega-prison will provide operational efficiencies.  In its report, Corrections stressed urgency and identified risks to public safety, outbreaks of violence and disorder, and inability to provide rehabilitation programmes, if the proposal did not proceed.  It also emphasised its obligations to operate within the law.

Consultation

Key stakeholders were consulted as part of an environmental impact assessment required by law, and the department separately commissioned an economic benefits report, in order to market the benefits of the 3000-bed prison to the local community. No other public consultation took place and the social impact report did not envisage any negative impact on the community.

Social Impact

The environmental assessment report proceeded on the assumption that the Department of Corrections will manage a 3000-bed prison in much the same way that it manages existing prisons, and with the same outcomes.

Mixed Security Classifications in a Maximum Security Prison

There are however, three differences acknowledged in the report:

  • The prison will be built as a high security prison, but not contain high security prisoners.
  • It will hold a mix of remand and sentenced prisoners from high through to minimum security.
  • Prisoners with lower security classifications will be housed in high security accommodation units,  but be ‘managed with less restrictive conditions’ consistent with the levels of risk they pose’.

Lack of Analysis

There is no evidence of any in depth analysis about:

  1. The department’s capacity and capability to manage a mega-prison.
  2. Whether mega-prisons will deliver the same level of outputs as smaller prisons.
  3. Whether a mega-prison will enable the Department of Corrections to fulfil its legal obligations under s.5 and s.6 of the Corrections Act 2004 and the Corrections Regulations.
  4. The impact on the safety and well-being of prisoners.

Comparison with 2007 UK Titan Prisons Proposal

This paper compares the Waikeria proposal with 2007 UK proposal by Lord Carter to build three 2,500 ‘Titan prisons’, a proposal which generated significant public and professional opposition.  Numerous submissions were made from criminal justice professionals and organisations which in summary, argued that:

  • On measures of safety, respect, purposeful activity and resettlement, smaller prisons were more effective than large prisons.
  • Harmful cultures are more likely to develop in larger prisons. Titan prisons were more likely to be unsafe and to require the use of force to control prisoners.
  • The distance of larger prisons from a prisoner’s home, reduced capacity of family members to visit, and difficulty accessing rehabilitative services, will have a negative impact on rehabilitative and reintegrative processes.
  • The government should instead invest in good local community prisons which allow individuals to maintain family and community ties and have the ability to provide excellent support and interventions – prisons should not exceed 400 prisoners.

Family Visits to Prison

The Waikeria report acknowledged that the most substantial negative effect would be the continued difficulty of visiting by families due to the rural nature of the site and lack of public transport.  It recommended that PARS (Prisoners Aid and Rehabilitation) be encouraged to run buses from Rotorua or Whakatane, and that the department allow prisoners and families to communicate via AVL (audio visual link).

A High Security Prison for Minimum and Medium Security Prisoners

Waikeria is set apart from other prisons in New Zealand, as it is proposed that:

  1. It will be constructed as a high security prison.
  2. It will hold a mix of remand and sentenced prisoners from high through to minimum security (but no maximum-security prisoners).
  3. Prisoners with lower security classifications will be housed in high security accommodation units, but be ‘managed with less restrictive conditions consistent with the levels of risk they pose’.

The above proposal breaches both Sections 5 and 6 of the Corrections Act 2004, and the Mandela Rules:

  • Sentences and orders must not be administered more restrictively than is reasonably necessary (s.6(g) Corrections Act 2004).
  • Groups should be distributed in separate prisons suitable for the treatment of each group (Mandela Rule 89).
  • It is desirable to provide varying degrees of security according to the needs of different groups (Mandela Rule 89).
  • Open prisons, by the very fact that they provide no physical security against escape but rely on the self-discipline of the inmates, provide the conditions most favourable to the rehabilitation of carefully selected prisoners (Mandela Rule 89).
  • Prisoners in closed prisons should not be so large that the individualization of treatment is hindered. In some countries it is considered that the population of such prisons should not exceed 500 (Mandela Rule 89).

The effects of increased punitiveness, segregation, risk-informed logics, and narrow organisational understandings of the person on institutional behavior and dynamics are more likely to occur in a maximum-security setting.

A recent study of restraint and seclusion practices in New Zealand found that there was a high use of solitary confinement and restraint, often not used as a measure of last resort.  It also found that:

  • There were indications of a high level of risk aversion in the units visited, resulting in staff safety taking too much precedence over patients’ and prisoners’ comfort and rights. There appeared to be greater focus on control of individuals than on their treatment, and an anticipation of disruptive behaviour.
  • Māori and Pacific Islanders made up approximately 80 per cent of Directed Segregations (Management units and Disciplinary segregation). By comparison, pākehā accounted for a mere 15 per cent of prisoners in Directed Segregation.

The decision to operate the Waikeria prison within a maximum-security environment, is consistent with the increased use of administrative detention and solitary confinement within the prison system.

Conclusion

In its submission to the Minister of Corrections, the department stressed that unless the 3000-bed prison was built, risks would include:

  • Reduced ability to ensure staff safety.
  • Increased risk of violent, self-harms and suicide incidents.
  • Inability to deliver effective rehabilitative initiatives.
  • Reduced ability to respond to unexpected events.
  • Inability to house all prisoners in an environment and regime matched to their security rating and separate prisoners who are on remand to those who have been sentenced.
  • Reduced opportunity for prisoners to engage in prison employment; and
  • Increased damage to facilities.

The review of existing research indicates that if the mega-prison is built, it is more likely to:

  • Increase the risk to staff.
  • Increase risk of violent, self-harms and suicide incidents.
  • Contribute to ineffective rehabilitative and reintegrative outcomes.
  • Make it more difficult to house prisoners in accordance with their security rating.

The proposal to establish High Security Prison for Minimum and Medium Security Prisoners, breaches Sections 5 and 6 of the Corrections Act 2004, and the Mandela Rules. 

Concluding Comments

It is a defining moment in criminal justice history.  There is significant pressure on the prison estate, but for the reasons set out in this paper, a mega-prison will not only reinforce a developing view of the corrections system as essentially punitive and ineffective, but seriously hinder the government’s intention to reduce the prison population.

There may be a middle ground.  If the government stands by its ideals and implements a progressive downsizing strategy immediately, it could take the pressure off the prison estate, to enabling a rethink about the sort of prison system it wants; one that aligns with our social values.  That may necessitate a broader review of the criminal justice system, and a sector wide examination.

This Executive Summary is from a 28 page Discussion Paper, by Kim Workman, 2 March 2018. You can read the full report here. 

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