No more prisons – find another way!

The fact that half the prison population in New Zealand is Maori is simply a national scandal that must be ended.
Many Maori are in prison for being poor ie unable to pay fines the wealthy have no trouble paying or victims of laws that shouldn’t be there in the first place like those criminalising cannabis possession.
It simply a fact that Maori are subject to racist discrimination at every stage of the so-called justice system. You are more likely to be stopped in the street if you are brown, more likely to be arrested once stopped, more likely to face more serious charges if prosecuted, more likely to have no legal representation if in court, more likely to be convicted, more likely to be imprisoned, more likely to receive a lengthy sentence.
Prison population numbers have increased by 364% over the last 30 years to over 10,000 today.
New Zealand’s imprisonment rate at around 150 per 100,000 is the second highest in the wealthy advanced capitalist world and is second only to the super-star of imprisonment – the United States. Both Labour and National governments have spent tax-payers money in an endless bidding war when it comes to “law and order” policies.
Prison sentences have become almost mandatory for many offenses, the length of imprisonment has got progressively longer, early release for good behaviour harder to get, without any evidence being provided that this made the community any safer.
It has been made increasingly more difficult to obtain release on bail when arrested and more difficult to get an early release to reward good behaviour.
There is almost no ability for prisoners to access mental health or addiction services in prison despite the admission from the chief executive of Corrections Ray Smith that of the roughly 20,000 people going through prison each year, approximately 91 percent of them have alcohol or drug addictions, or mental health issues over their lifetime. The number entering prison with those issues is 61 percent.
Everone knows that access to family, health services, education and training, decent jobs have the best impact on preventing reoffending so we seem to insist on creating a system of punishment that does the exact opposite.
There have been two recent surges in imprisonment numbers. The first was under the Labour-led government from 2002-2007 under the “tough on crime – tough on the causes of crime” Justice Minister Phil Goff. Goff led a rewrite of the law with the explicit purpose of increasing penalties and bail conditions. Briefing Papers warned that the changes would lead to an increase in the prison population and the need for more prisons.
Phil Goff was proud of his achievement as the following press release from March 2004 boasted that the numbers being imprisoned were increasing while crime rates were decreasing:

Tougher sentencing and parole laws enacted by the government in 2002 will see New Zealand’s prison population increase by over 20 percent in the next seven years, Justice Minister Phil Goff said today.

The Ministry of Justice’s Annual Update of Forecasts of the Prison Population, released today, predicts there will be around 7400 in jail in 2010, an increase of 1300 on the 6100 inmates in 2003.

“The forecast says the predicted increase in the prison population is a reflection of legislative changes and a series of initiatives undertaken by this government,” Mr Goff said.

“As intended, the Sentencing Act 2002 has resulted in longer sentences being imposed. At the same time, the Parole Act 2002 is expected to increase the proportion of sentences that inmates actually serve. Under the Bail Act 2000, more high-risk defendants are being denied bail.

“The projected increase in the prison population is not the result of increasing crime. It comes at a time when New Zealand’s crime rate, and total recorded crime, has dropped substantially from a peak in 1996. There has also been little change in the average seriousness of offences over that period, according to Ministry of Justice research,” Mr Goff said.

“A record number of police, and a of over $1 billion, has resulted in increased crime resolution rates again last year, and more people brought to court and sentenced for their crimes. The Government’s Crime Reduction Strategy and Methamphetamine Action Plan have also resulted in more people facing prosecution.

“The public referendum in 1999 showed New Zealanders wanted tougher measures taken against criminals, and the government has acted on that. These figures are the proof.

“The forecast confirms that since the Sentencing Act 2002 came into force, the average sentences have increased across the board. We have also abolished the nonsense of serious violent offenders being automatically released at two thirds of their sentence.

“New Zealand’s worst offenders are also now receiving the harshest sentences ever handed down. Already this year two double murderers, Joseph Samoa and William Johansson, have been given life sentences with minimum non-parole periods of 22 years and 23 years; while last year William Bell received 33 years’ non-parole for triple murder; and Bruce Howse was given 28 years’ non-parole for murdering his two stepchildren.

“Tougher sentencing comes at a high cost. Four new prisons under construction or planned will cost over $600 million in capital expenditure, with operating costs of over $120 million a year.

“It’s money ideally we’d much rather spend on areas like health and education. However, in the short term tougher sentencing is necessary to deal with serious recidivist offenders and to keep the community safe.

“Over the longer term, it will be measures to address the causes of crime, rather than simply prisons, which will bring down crime.

“Early intervention, which deals with anti-social behaviour at a young age, is ultimately a more effective and cheaper way of cut crime. Over the next two budgets the Government will be increasing its efforts in this area,” Mr Goff said.

The second surge in prison numbers came in 2015 after National reformed the bail laws. Again Labour endorsed the bail law changes. The Bail Amendment Bill passed into law by 102 votes to 19. It was opposed by the Greens, the Maori Party, Mana and Brendan Horan.
It was claimed the change would make the laws fairer and only increase the number in prison by 50 or so. The actual increase was 1500 over the next two years. Again Maori were the big majority detained without bail. And one of the main reasons for being denied bail was not the nature of the offense but because they did not have accommodation outside of jail that was deemed “suitable”. Being poor becomes a crime in itself.
National has also imposed so-called “double-bunking” to slow the prison building cost – at the price of degrading and violence-prone overcrowding.
The Corrections Department is predicting the prison numbers to continue increasing to 12,000 by 2026 if there is no change in policy. A new 2000 bed prison is set for sign-off in April this year.
The so-called free-market extremism carried out in New Zealand under the term “neo-liberalism” was also accompanied by a cruel and callous promotion of an attitude that “failures” should be abandoned to their fate. Failures were deemed to be anyone who lost their job, got into trouble with the law for using recreation drugs, had a baby without a proper partner. Academic literature actually shows that the greater inequality in a society the greater overall level of punishment is.
The new government has signaled that it wants to “have a dialogue” about the high imprisonment rates. But it has a duty to simply reject the new prison as being a product of all that has been wrong in this area for decades. The billions it will cost will be better spent anywhere else.
The union movement needs to take a lead on this issue. What Maori face is in many ways what all working-class people face from this system with an added twist of the knife
It is time for people to simply say:


  1. No more prisons Find a better way!
    A very timely story, and I am very happy to see the unions take the lead.
    Like all equality issues it takes time unfortunately.
    lets get on with highlighting some better ways!
    Nanaia Mahuta has suggested that Iwi leaders forum,
    focus more on poverty issues.
    Government’s first role is to reduce poverty. Certainly Maori communities ideas must be included in discussions but of most importance society attitudes and expectations must change.

  2. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime!
    Maori numbers in prison are large because for each prisoner sentenced to a custodial sentence he/she has a string of convictions behind them culminating in jail time. Please don’t pretend they are all in jail for a 1st time offence. The average prisoner has a conviction list as long as your arm BEFORE they head to prison, or re-enter prison because of crime after release.
    I guess this is all our fault, the general, white, public to blame for the poor wee darlings incarceration?
    Take a handful of prisoners, at random, in any prison in NZ and let us all know the amount of convictions they have had over a 10yr period for example, THEN plead with the NZ public ‘it’s not fair’ and see their reaction.

  3. I don’t agree with all of the comments above. People are not the same people are not and have not been treated the same or equal in our country and never will be. We have entrenched racism in many of our state services. I get sick and tired of hearing we all had the same opportunities ‘no we don’t and how would you know you are not us.
    Also why are the indigenous people , black, brown people more likely to be incarcerated NZers need to ask this why has this happened in so many countries its called colonization and colonization is racism and discrimination all I one big package because the colonizer assume the superior positions so superior it took our colonizer how long to sail here

  4. You’ve got to be kidding me.

    “Many Maori are in prison for being poor ie unable to pay fines the wealthy have no trouble paying or victims of laws that shouldn’t be there in the first place like those criminalising cannabis possession.”

    What are these fines? For breaking the law? I’m sure there’s no discrimination there. Don’t break the law, don’t get fined. Simple.

    Cannabis possession – again, it’s currently against the law. Get caught, pay the fine/do the time.

    Both of these issues are non-discriminatory. There’s no ‘targeting Maori’ or any other group of people. Break the law, deal with the consequences, and get over it. Stop trying to play the victim.

    • Yes Wally life is so simple isn’t it.? So straight forward there is no such thing as institutionalized racism is there? Do a quick comparison of the fines and sentences imposed on non- Maori cf to Maori in the Whangarei court over a 3 year period and get back to me.

  5. Prisons are the canary in the coal mine as an indication of the overall health and equity of N.Z. society.We are miserably failing in the areas of mental health,drug addiction and alcoholism.And associated with this is our economic system , that is loaded against Maori in many respects. The eradication of poverty,a fairer allocation of the resources of the country,and an imposed limit on the level of wealth that any individual can accumulate. That is the only solution that will solve our prison problem!!!

    On another subject, I find the comments of the two obviously White Men commentators Steve and I’m Right fascinating from an anthropological point of view.You can feel the vibrations of White Supremacy emanating from their comments.I am reminded of photos of White Supremists in the United States, who are always sorry looking specimens of humanity, but they claim to be superior.I’m sorry, but your comments lack any cerebral value.In the great Scales of justice of the Universe we all have our place. Yours decidedly point towards a lack of comprehension, a failure of empathy, a weighting towards a negative direction of evolution!!!

    • Serco now have only one contract and that is with SecureFuture who in turn have a contract with Corrections to run the new prison at Wiri. They receive the same amount of money regardless of the number of prisoners they have in the prison.
      One day we will wake up and realise that the job Serco was doing at Mount Eden was at least as good, and in some aspects better, than the job done by the Department of Corrections. That’s history now though.

      Take a look at the Stuff Circuit investigation entitled “is there a better way?” Carrying on the way we are clearly doesnt work.

  6. I see lots of hand-wringing by Mike in this article but not a single idea for a solution. It’s easy to point out that life isn’t fair, but less easy to find solutions. 😉

    I have a couple of options. You won’t like either, but here goes:

    1. Introduce an element of duty into the welfare system. These people have ‘entitlements’ but there should be a corresponding responsibility imposed on the recipient if they’re receiving tax payers money. Examples: To get their full welfare they must enroll in community work schemes. Similarly they get it cut if they’re misbehaving or wearing a gang patch. The community constable should sit in on WINZ interviews.

    2. Several SE Asian countries employ whipping as a form of punishment for youth offending. The ‘rattan cane’ is an excellent short, sharp, shock for teens and young adults who are out of control. Followed up by supervision and support of course. The Isle of Man used to have the birch cane until the stupid European Court of Human Rights stopped it. This was an excellent way to curb vandalism and general misbehavior among the youth. (A couple of friends got it and it certainly re-focused them!) No permanent harm is done and it saves a fortune in prisons, social workers and greatly reduced re-offending.

  7. This article is biased.

    “The fact that half the prison population in New Zealand is Maori.”

    Therefore: 50% is not.

    Tell us about the other 50%, Mike. Tell us about that ‘national shame.’

    Tell us about the people from the Islands or first generation New Zealanders. Tell us about the other young fellas who’ve had it equally as hard with problems around literacy and numeracy and no access to training that suits hands on kids, despite turning up at school.

    The Invisibles. The often quiet kids who got lost – or who also moved schools a dozen times and also slept in cars or got thrown out of home too early.

    The Other 50%.

    Otherwise it all sounds racist, patronising and disempowering. Doesn’t it?

  8. It’s simple really, don’t do the crime, and you won’t do the time.
    Live by society’s rules or pay the price.
    We all have the same rules to live by, and personal responsibility.

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