Countdown to the Mega-Prison

Minister of Corrections, Kelvin Davis

It is a strange moment in New Zealand politics: a Labour government committed to slashing prison numbers, about to build the biggest prison the country has ever seen. A final decision will be made within a month. With each passing day, momentum grows and the build becomes more likely.

The plan is to construct a new facility next to Waikeria prison, creating an enormous prison complex holding up to 3000 people. That is much larger than even the United Kingdom’s largest prison – HMP Berwyn, capacity 2100 – four countries with a combined population of 65 million.

Six months ago, no one would have expected Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis to support the build. In opposition, he was a radical critic and favorite of prison reform advocates, myself included.

Davis in office seems drained of all imagination. Now he oversees 9000 corrections staff and a prison system filled to overflowing. Conditions inside are terrible, with prisoners double-bunked and forced into shipping containers or emergency beds intended for disaster readiness. Routine inspections report endemic levels of violence and assault. Frontline staff are stretched to breaking-point.

Struggling day-to-day with these immense practical challenges, some say Davis has been swayed by Corrections head Ray Smith. When invited last week to share his ideas for bringing down prison numbers, Davis said simply: “I’ve asked Corrections officials to go away and come up with the various solutions… We are looking at all the options they have given us.”

Letting Corrections drive debate is a sure road to prison building. The prison boom has made them the second largest government department in New Zealand. They stand at the end of a long chain of decisions made by politicians and police and judges, with a function of holding in custody people sent from elsewhere. Prisons are what they do, what they know. They are poorly placed to imagine a world with less of them.

The alternative to building at Waikeria is using legislation to reduce prison numbers, changing bail laws to limit the number of people imprisoned while waiting for trial, or parole laws to expand access to early release. Bail and parole have both been used to dramatically increase prison numbers in recent years. Now they could be used to cut them.

Here the political calculus becomes the problem. For Labour fears the backlash if someone out on bail or parole engages in high-profile offending. And so they reach an impasse: how to reduce the prison population without releasing any prisoners?

National are already trotting out tired get tough slogans. Last week in parliament, new leader Simon Bridges attacked Jacinda Ardern for being “soft on crime” and “stalling on the Waikeria build.” Ardern was non-committal on the decision. She stood firm on reviewing bail laws, but also repeated the claim Waikeria is “in a shocking state,” which sounds more and more like a Labour premise to push ahead with the proposed new prison.

When National’s Stephen Joyce took the floor, he suggested Labour could not afford the capital spending on Waikeria and other projects, like a new hospital in Dunedin and plans to build 100,000 affordable homes. And there’s the rub. It really is a choice between building prisons, or building homes and hospitals.

I hope Ardern and Labour can articulate a more compelling alternative vision. For their headline goal of cutting prison numbers is a negative one, easily attacked as failing to invest in public safety. The more important story is the resources it frees-up for spending on social supports that (unlike prisons) actually work to make people safe. As they say in Scandinavia: the best crime control policy is good social policy.

Labour wants to be aspirational. How about a vision of jobs not jails? A vision of homes for our people, not more cages? How about aspiring to an Aotearoa that does not need a mega-prison, but is safe because people are in dry homes with whanau around and food in the cupboards?

As it stands, they are about to spend a billion dollars building a hell hole in rural Waikato. I am not sure the planners quite understand what they are creating with a prison of this size. For clues they could look at what goes on in the gigantic prisons of Trump’s America, black holes of abuse and suffering that are an international disgrace.

There is one good thing about this prison: it hasn’t been built yet. Labour’s big ideals now confront a very concrete decision over brick and mortar, steel bars and razor wire.

Do not build the mega-prison. We cannot say it enough over the next few weeks.

Liam Martin is Lecturer in Criminology, at Victoria University of Wellington. This piece was first published in the Dominion Post, 9 March 2018

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