Dr Liz Gordon – What it is like in prison


Ole Bomber who runs this site lost his toys the other day over Kate Hawkesby’s discourse of contempt around prisoners.  Or, as he so poetically put it, the “boorish bruise of the very barbarism they (people like her) claim to recoil from”.

The issue was some nonsense to do with the wonderful treatment of prisoners, who were so much more privileged than their victims, yada yada.  I agree with Bomber that it is time for those voices to just stop, as we move into a new period of reformed justice.

I had just been reading the prison inspector’s report on Invercargill Prison at the time, and I had been a little shocked at some aspects of it. Especially, I thought, because the Inspectorate tended to think it was all fine.

Invercargill runs a small prison, with 190 inmates with minimum, low or low/medium security ratings.  On the Liz scale of who should be in prison, probably few of these would qualify.

So I thought I would take opportunity of taking my dedicated readers (I believe the number has swelled to 3) through what it is like to serve out a sentence at Invercargill.

First, the generalities.  You would be going there either because you had just received a custodial sentence as an adult, or because a Court had ‘remanded’ you (put you in prison before you had been tried in a Court and found guilty).

During ‘reception’, you would shed nearly all your worldly goods, and especially your shiny iphone on which you had previously lavished 10 hours a day of your time, your cigarettes (if you imbibe) and virtually everything else.  You would be searched and likely get some prison clothes to wear. You would be assessed for your mental state, risks to safety and good order and whether you are fit to share a cell with another.

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At Invercargill, some of these assessments were not carried out before they were marched into a cell.  Other than this, prisoners were generally treated well at reception.

The prison is old but is warm and each cell has natural light.  The clothing was of good standard and laundered regularly. There were no complaints about food.

Just on this.  In interview, prisoners often comment that the housing quality of most prisons (apart from double-bunking, which can be hell, see below) is often better than where their whanau live. This is a not a signal for people to say prisons should be worse.  Housing must be better, full stop.

Now, here’s the rub.  Before you read the next paragraph, think about at what time low security prisoners get out of their cells in the morning, and what time they are locked back up. How many hours a day do you think they are unlocked?

You probably said about 12-14 hours. Well, a quote from the report:

On average, prisoners in South and Centre Units spent about six hours a day out of their cells. Unlock times were further reduced in the Remand Unit and North Unit because they were housing different categories of prisoners, who could not be mixed.

Now the horror of it starts to unfold.  The average low or minimum security prisoner is locked in a cell for 18 hours a day, and, with double-bunking, they share this time in a small cell with a stranger. They eat dinner at four and are tucked up for the night (and 16 hours until the next meal) at 5. And don’t even get me started on conditions for remand prisoner who, you remember, have not even been sentenced.

Because of these long lock-ups, there is little time for proper rehabilitation programmes or work (except within the prison). There were over 100 people on waiting lists for various courses (including addictions, parenting, anti-violence etc) and some had been waiting many months.

There were some interesting work experience programmes operating, but currently they cannot get qualifications (this is being reviewed). There are some education options, and one person was enrolled in tertiary study (they have to pay for such courses).

There are some dining rooms but they are not used.  It is not stated where the prisoners eat their meals, but the lack of communal spaces is noted, especially for remand prisoners.  The ability to talk with whanau on the phone is limited, as most families are not home until after five when the prisoners are locked up.

A number of problems were noted with health facilities.  Treatment plans for high-needs patients were “poorly completed”, appointments were missed because the electronic appointment system was not being used, sedative medications were dispensed at 4pm even though they should be given out at 7-9 pm and some prisoners complained about long waiting times to see a doctor. Then there is mental health…

Just to give a flavour of these issues, here is a paragraph about the so-called ‘at-risk unit:

At the time of our inspection, two cells held prisoners who were waiting to be transferred to a secure mental health facility. We tried to speak with these prisoners but neither was able to converse coherently.

So these two guys were so mentally ill that they couldn’t speak, but were being held in isolation units at a prison (they were eventually transferred to a mental health unit).  Actually, this situation is replicated all over the country, and is a small window into the hidden horrors of modern prison practices. Let’s put it this way – it is a breach of the human rights of people with major illnesses of any kind to be bundled into an isolation cell.

In the at-risk unit, people are locked up for up to 23 hours a day.  When out of their cells, they do not see or communicate with other prisoners.  There is no TV or radio in their cells for safety reasons. New models of care are apparently being developed for these prisoners.  At the moment it is hell.

Oops, I am way over my word limit. Dear friends, do let me know whether you feel our prisoners are too well treated from this account, and whether we should go the Garth McVicar route of unheated tents on the Desert Road.


Dr Liz Gordon began her working life as a university lecturer at Massey and the Canterbury universities. She spent six years as an Alliance MP, before starting her own research company, Pukeko Research.  Her work is in the fields of justice, law, education and sociology (poverty and inequality). She is the president of Pillars, a charity that works for the children of prisoners, a prison volunteer, and is on the board of several other organisations. Her mission is to see New Zealand freed from the shackles of neo-liberalism before she dies (hopefully well before!).



  1. Okay Dr Liz , so submissions to Andrew Little’s summit next month is the order of the day ? If so what’s the process?

  2. Normally I would not defend the Corrections Department but the issue of mental health is one that justifies defence. Corrections is often left with seriously mentally ill prisoners because there is no room for them in a secure facility elsewhere. Prison staff with minimal training in the area of mental health are forced into being responsible for looking after them. The Mason Clinic in Auckland simply doesnt have enough beds and I suspect similar facilities in other locations are the same.

    • Yes, you are right regarding the inappropriateness of prison staff being forced to deal with people who should be in a secure mental health facility… My comment here would be to point out that the “great traitor” Douglas, who started the process of divesting the state of the responsibility for their care, and the corporate raiding party, otherwise misnamed the national party should be getting pilloried through the news media for forcing this onto the corrections department… I am constantly amazed that there hasn’t been a concerted campaign by the labour party, among others to ensure that the main culprits for this abuse of vulnerable people are escaping any kind of blame…

  3. Spot on Liz,
    Sadly ignorance is a quality valued by those who consider themselves representatives of the bulk of our population. Only the US jails more people than we do…that says it all. Prisoners are not treated well and the evidence is clear to see. We have to reconsider our present systems of justice. The facts speak for themselves. Keep up the good work.

  4. and ppl wonder why the recidivist rate is so high, guess dehumanized mental health patents are cheaper to imprison than treat

  5. I’m with you Liz the number that should be in prison is so very small and they are a danger to society.

    All people who are convicted should be in work gangs, cleaning the rivers amd all the other things that desperately need doing that governments and councils say they haven’t got the money for.

    I can think of a few council and state houses that need painting – get people into apprenticeships. Learning useful skills.

    Why are we not following the models overseas that have been so very successful and managed to drop their prison numbers significantly.

    Ah yes because we now live in a punitive society where every little misdemeanor means you need to be locked up.

    300 people in prison for driving without a drivers licence. Dumb Dumb Dumb.

  6. From deinstiutionalization (mental hospitals) to re-institutionalization in prisons. Full circle.

  7. I recall a few years ago that prisoners were able to do useful courses like Trade Certs in welding while in prison. This was removed as it was felt that this gave prisoners an advantage over people outside prison who had to pay for their own courses. Unfortunately this small minded punitive mindset is applied in other areas as well.

  8. The very expensive dungeons of the state. now referred to as prisons are hellish, and no wonder recividism is high, and suicide rates high also. Def a good time to write in on the ‘Justice’ revamp for those concerned about our future society.

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