If Labour Wants Fewer Prisoners, Then It Needs To Create More Prison Space – Not Less


STUPIDITY ON STILTS. How else should the decision-making on Waikeria Prison be characterised. From practically every perspective, the Labour-led government’s determination not to proceed with the construction of a new 3,000-bed “mega-prison” was flawed. Most particularly (and most worryingly) it demonstrated the Cabinet’s inability to think politically. When your business is politics-at-the-highest-level, that’s a very serious flaw indeed.

Let’s begin from where we are right now. New Zealand’s current prison muster has never been higher. In a nation of just 4.7 million it has topped 10,000 – making New Zealanders one of the most incarcerated peoples in the OECD.

The consequences of this rapid rise in prisoner numbers is that the country’s existing prisons are already dangerously over-crowded. The acute lack of space has already led to the introduction of double-bunking (thank you Judith Collins) and to prisoners being locked in their cells for extended periods. Not surprisingly, these conditions have led to an increase in the number of prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-guard assaults, as well as to a sharp spike in the number of prisoner suicides.

If there’s one thing that would really help New Zealand’s prisoners; its prison guards; and, ultimately, it’s people as a whole; it would be to increase the amount of prison space dramatically. It is only after the Department of Corrections takes possession of enough state-of-the-art “correctional facilities” to humanely house not only its current, but also its projected muster, that any kind of serious discussion about prisoner rehabilitation can begin.

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While prisoners are being double-bunked, locked in their cells 22 hours a day, and denied access to the sort of medical, educational and vocational services most of them need, all talk of rehabilitation is not only meaningless – it’s mendacious.

To hear Kelvin Davis acknowledge that it may soon be necessary to put prisoners on mattresses on the floor was sickening. That a Labour cabinet minister is willing to countenance the New Zealand prison system becoming indistinguishable from the Third World hellholes visited by Ross Kemp’s “Extreme World” TV show, marks a new low for what is already a sadly compromised party.

But, what else could he say? The botched compromise he’d just announced: a new 500-bed prison at Waikeria incorporating a 100-bed mental health facility; will not admit its first inmate until 2022. By which time the muster is unlikely to have fallen appreciably and chronic overcrowding will still be making bad men worse.

That’s why it is so dishonest of the Labour-led government to talk about its long-term (15 years!) goal of reducing New Zealand’s prison muster by 30 percent. The last political party to be in power continuously for 15 years was “King Dick” Seddon’s Liberals. Back in the days when politicians wore top-hats and spats.

The only way a political party can talk about a 15-year-plan for reducing prisoner numbers by 30 percent with any semblance of credibility is after it has already succeeded in forging a broad bi-partisan consensus on all the major issues relating to crime and punishment. While Labour remains unmoved by the electorate’s strong emotional attachment to the arguments of the Sensible Sentencing Trust: i.e. that the perpetrators of horrendous crimes must be kept as far away from society as possible, for as long as possible; no consensus is achievable.

A good first-step for Labour would be an open acknowledgement that in all societies there is an irreducible number of bad bastards who must be caught, convicted and locked away. In matters of crime and punishment it is also important to acknowledge that the government’s highest priority should always be the safety of the public. Prisons may represent, as Bill English noted, both a fiscal and a moral failure, but this side of the Second Coming they are failures that cannot be avoided.

It is only after the public has been convinced of a party’s commitment to their safety that the conversation about crime and punishment can be extended to embrace the broader questions of rehabilitation and crime prevention. Advances in both these areas stand a much better chance of being achieved when the effort is concentrated within the prison system itself. Creating the necessary settings for such activity will, paradoxically, require the creation of more correctional space – not less.

In other words, if Labour’s long-term goal is to reduce the size of the New Zealand prison system, then its short-term priority must be to expand it.

New Zealanders will only believe in rehabilitation when they are presented with irrefutable evidence of its success. When prisoners’ physical and mental health problems are treated professionally and effectively. When they are taught to read, write and count well enough to pass the written driving test. When the people released from this country’s prisons stay released.

Only then will the prison muster fall and the resulting savings be seen to exceed the money spent on providing the space and services needed to reduce New Zealand’s appalling incarceration rate.


  1. If the causes of crime (largely) relate to circumstance from birth then even 15 years may be optimistic….but is Nationals proposed ‘mega’ prison the solution? Id suggest not….even though the Minister appears to have accepted double bunking…..perhaps an expansion/upgrade of current facilities to provide further beds (additional to Waikeria) would have been an option.

    Im inclined to agree that until such time as successful results of addressing the causes of crime can be demonstrated here this will be a club the government will be beaten with….fear is not patient.

  2. Skewed Logic

    In order to have fewer prisoners we have to have more prisoners.

    Oh really Chris. ?

  3. Based on what you have written you haven’t listened to the reasons why may NZers do not want a mega prison instead you have regurgitated the same old dribble that has been debunked by experts in this area and you are not one of them.

    • So right Michelle.

      Chris go study what scandanavia is doing re jails .Sweden has closed 16 jails in the last 10 years using the rehab concept.

  4. Interesting perspective Chris. You’re right that we need to be spending more on legitimate rehab, but rather than keeping people who don’t need to be in prison locked up IMO we should be doing more community-based sentences and funneling the rehab money into community rehab, mental health services, etc, not more prisons. BUT, if we do need more cells to make prisons productive environments so be it.

  5. First principles. A real FULL EMPLOYMENT policy, less alienated men, less crime, less prisoners, fewer prisons required.

    • Reinstate a 21st century MOW
      Reinstate a 21st century MOW
      Reinstate a 21st century MOW
      Reinstate a 21st century MOW
      Reinstate a 21st century MOW
      Reinstate a 21st century MOW
      Reinstate a 21st century MOW
      Reinstate a 21st century MOW
      Reinstate a 21st century MOW
      Reinstate a 21st century MOW
      Reinstate a 21st century MOW
      Reinstate a 21st century MOW…………shall I mention it again…….Reinstate a 21st century MOW

  6. Unfortunately locking prisoners up for extended periods only increases the risk to staff. When the prisoners are unlocked they are needing to release even more pent up frustration. Training of Corrections Officers concentrates on security matters. While that is understandable it does mean that this is the focus of Corrections thinking and seems to mean more lock up time. It overrides all other considerations, so even escorting prisoners to much needed rehab activities is, at best, hampered – listen to the trouble Mike Williams describes in getting Howard League volunteers into prisons.

    On another note, how does a prison with 600 beds cost $750m, even allowing for the mental health facility, when the roughly five year old prison at Wiri for 1000 inmates cost approximately $250m. Both have been funded via a Public Private Partnership (in spite of what labour said earlier) so that doesnt account for the difference.

  7. Oh give over Chris. What a load of crap.
    Talk about building new prisons to avoid double-bunking is reactionary.
    Half the prisoners are in jail because of the war on drugs and the historic criminalization of poor workers, especially Maori.
    We can remove this problem by two measures:
    (1) a capital gains tax to eliminate poverty.
    (2) end the war on drugs.
    The failure to even consider these measures is what is wrong with the Coalition, not double bunking.

    • Much of what you say is right Chris, but the answer isn’t necessarily the US style mega prisons.

      Nor, unfortunately, can we expect that mental and physical health problems can always be treated effectively, and mental health problems are very widespread – about 90% of inmates have mh issues.

      Nor, unfortunately, can all prisoners be taught literacy skills – there are
      wonderful pockets of people, including volunteers, all over NZ teaching inmates e.g. to read, but not everyone can master the skills, or even wants to.

      With ever-increasing social and economic inequalities crime rates will inevitably rise – we need to get back to basic stuff like job creation programs, sorting complex housing issues etc, but sleeping inmates on mattresses on the floor is a dreadful counter-productive idea.

  8. You are wrong on this one Chris. I’m quite surprised that such a good historian as you can’t see it.

  9. In a way it is reminiscent of their policy of reducing petroleum product consumption by stopping exploration for new supplies. This would work if the rest of the world did the same, but as there is no risk of that only addressing the usage side of the equation will help. The approach of reducing prison population by restricting the available accommodation likewise seems to be approaching the issue from the wrong direction. Though I suppose it would ultimately be effective. It could work a bit like the health system crims would go on a waiting list until there was a space for them.
    D J S

  10. The repeal of the existing bail laws is required immediately to lower the prison population. The 1975 drug Act needs to be repealed and re written, and cannabis needs to be legalized. We need rehabilitation centers, job creation and a fully funded education system. Not more prisons!

  11. Chris succumbs to the pressure and hate propaganda pushed by the (Un) Sensible Sentencing Trust, I am gobsmacked.

  12. Then there’s this press release from 2004:

    Tougher laws driving up prison population.

    The Ministry of Justice predicting a 20 percent increase in the prison population over seven years. With then Justice Minister Phil Goff stating:

    “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 [sic] 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.

    These laws as well as the Bail Amendment Act 2013, six prisons constructed since 2005, the then Labour government being involved in the biggest prison expansion project in this country’s history. With a record prison population; will there be sufficient prison space to accommodate prisoners with laws which detain prisoners longer? It appears rather unconvincing by now.

    Then there’s the conditions that can arguably be responsible for seeing more pass through the Justice system. Consider the proportion of prisoners unemployed or low waged prior to incarceration:

    Up to 87 percent of prisoners unemployed before prison.

    In the Official Information Act response, Corrections Deputy Chief Executive Vincent Arbuckle states that “87 percent of prisoners did not pay any form of income tax in the month before entering prison. This indicates that 87 percent were unemployed, working for income but not paying tax, receiving a benefit, or being financially supported by another person.”

    If 87 percent of prisoners did not pay any form of income tax in the month before entering prison, how can any be receiving a benefit? Benefits are not income tax exempt. Appears to display the disconnect between the bureaucracies and the people and accompanying prejudice from above. This figure indicates many unemployed and receiving no benefit having had it cut or unwilling to endure the torment of Work and Income. In such a predicament it is understandable some may resort to irrational actions leading to prosecution.

    Is passing the written driving test really salvation? The modern driver’s license system is an example of a regime of oppressive testing that particularly reduces opportunities for the poor that were once readily available like so many other areas in life, that now keep many under foot. What’s to be gained? Work at a phantom job? Or chase insecure, low paying work where the high cost of living practically renders one a slave? Or perhaps a car can be considered an abode in these times?

  13. absolute ill-thought-out garbage from trotter..

    lessen prison numbers by ending stupid bail laws bought in by tories –

    empty the jails of non-violent drug offenders..

    problem solved..


      Add to that reversing the tobacco tax increases that has fueled a national crime spree, putting unnecessary pressure on police resources and has shop owners living in fear.

      • Good try. Making cigarettes more expensive makes it a target for poverty-driven crime that would have happened anyway. Making cigarettes cheaper wouldn’t reduce crime, it would only increase illness and death caused by cigarettes, and those stealing to survive would just target something else, or steal even more cigarettes at a time to keep their income from dropping. Even if inability to afford a herbal drug sold at a higher price was the problem, the solution would be to teach smokers to grow their own, introducing them to practical skills at the same time, not to drop the price.

        • What a totally ignorant non-rational response.

          Let me attempt to widen your perspective.

          Smoking is largely the domain of the lower social economic class. Therefore, theses ongoing and excessive tax increases are further exacerbating poverty. Thus, all its social ills.

          Moreover, unlike most other stolen goods, tobacco is highly active. Thus, there is far more demand fueling this black-market and the related crime spree that supplies it.

          Therefore, it is massively adding to poverty driven crime and not merely replacing it. As seen by the explosion in the number of shops being targeted.

          Additionally, continuing on with further excessive tax increases will further grow the black market demand, thus lead to further aggravated crime being committed.

          Furthermore, there are many things in society that leads to illness and death, many of which are marketed at and sold directly to children. Supermarkets are full with such goods. And further impoverishing the poor with excessive tax hikes leads to many resorting to cheaper less healthier foods as a result. Thus, creating more illness and related deaths.

          As for home grown tobacco, it lacks the many chemicals (found in tailor made cigarettes) that many are also addicted too. Hence, fails to fully satisfy a cigarette smokers cravings. So while home grown tobacco may help some, it’s not a total solution.

  14. The big double-bind.
    How does Labour/NZ First/The Greens reduce the need for prisons in the long term but cater for the sharp increase in prisoners in the short term?
    That’s a bloody tough one!
    National have left us with a their legacy of change the law to create more prisons but not to give a stuff about logistical problems that arise.
    I say there is no easy solution.
    It is doubly compounded by the need to balance policy between the advocates of prison and justice reform and the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” vocal minority, who unfortunately seem to be in the ascendant at the moment.
    I think Labour is treading the boards pragmatically on this one.
    It is trying to set a middle course, and I also congratulate on them planning the county’s first unit dedicated to prisoners with severe mental health issues.
    Yes, the new facilities are a few years away but dithering around doing nothing will make them even further away.
    So I note your arguments Chris, they are always worth noting but I will say that I think that Labour is actually on the right track. There is a lot to be accomplished, it cannot be done overnight, but its a start and a lot more than we could ever have hoped for under National.

    • (as already noted) reverse the onerous bail laws introduced by the tories – empty the jails of non-violent drug offenders – what do you find so difficult to grasp about that..?
      and you advocate for none of that..?..
      instead you come out for ‘mattresses on the floor’..?…and say what a good job they are doing..?


      • National have left the prison system in a deplorable mess, not the least important factor being trying to privatise it.
        I have a f…n big problem with that sunshine!
        Labour may not have all the solutions and quickly enough but it compares to National that have absolutely zero for both.
        I also have a f…n big problem with that too.
        It is you that seem to have difficulty grasping the fact that National’s strategy on crime and prisons was a miserable failure. The party that boasts of being tough on crime is only tough on criminals, and it seems that you and them can’t tell the difference.
        And in your response to the last pointless question.
        No, I am not Mike Williams.

  15. I’m in a WTF pause here….
    Why are so many NZ/AO people being factory processed into prisons again?
    What do they do?
    What crimes are they commiting?
    If it’s mostly drug crimes, then that’s fucked right there and people who commit drug crimes are , in themselves, victims of an institutionalised stupidity.
    Police? Check out Portugal, FFS? The internet is a convieniant source of information fyi. What you do right? Is turn ‘on’ your computer and ask, by typing the question, what it is? Do you want me to repeat that? Serious question. Because it looks like you guys, ‘an that, need guidance. Etc.
    When criminals do their work i.e. politicians fuck us over for a dollar, then people, i.e. you and me, react. We get busted and go to jail while ‘they’ go to their flash houses and get pissed while admiring the sheen on their Bently. Just writing that inspires in me a criminal mentality. See? See how easy that is to kick start???
    What really gets me, is that the best a modern system can do for a fellow who fucks it up, is shut them up in a small room, often with another fellow, then torture them. Excuse me for thinking this, but that’s fucked. That’s entirely counter productive! What? About that? Can’t they fucking see? To me? It looks like the smartest ones are being locked up while the dumbasses roam free as they lock us up for the dopy laws they insist we must not break???????????? Which we do~! I mean
    God help the thinker. They’ll get handcuffed. ( And on that note…? Why handcuff people once arrested? What’re they going to do? Scratch their arse? Pick their nose? ) Yep. We’re fucked.

  16. These contributions recognise this blog as seeing ‘real politics’ as pandering to neo-liberal right wingers. Chris T sees the politics of the last 9 years as a given, a standard to measure other political positions. You sound pompous and righteous CT. Others of us have brains (even degrees!!), a knowledge of history, experience at the barricades & yet lack a sense of superiority.

  17. You’re right Chris: This is indeed stupidity on stilts. Another own-goal by Labour.

    Let’s be honest about this. The Labour Party policy on crime & punishment never made sense in the first place. It was just naïve virtue signalling by a party that thought it would lose the election and continue to chant empty slogans from opposition benches.

    It seems that during their nine years in opposition they’d never sat down and developed any viable policies in almost anything! So now they’re in melt-down mode.

    The logic for crime & punishment goes like this:

    1. The average inmate has over 40 prior convictions, excluding their sealed youth offending file and 98% of them are incarcerated for violent offences.

    2. You simply cannot let violent offenders out on the street and expect to get re-elected. Just one murder or rape whilst on bail and National will use it to destroy Labour.

    3. So if you want to reduce the prison population, you first have to reduce offending.

    4. If you want to reduce offending you need to *really* understand the root causes of it. This is where Labour is woefully ignorant at the moment, probably because it doesn’t like the answers the research provides.

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