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.
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.