Dr Liz Gordon: Get those prisons reformed!


There has been a lot of media over the past week focussed on the need to improve the prisons. I must say that I have been disturbed by Kelvin Davis’ ‘blame the victim’ stance. I am aware that there are some very nefarious characters in New Zealand prisons,  but there is enough corroborating evidence that the system is not up to the standards that we expect as New Zealanders.

These standards are laid out in the ‘purpose’ section of the Corrections Act 2004.  Prisons must be safe, secure, humane and effective. They must be operated at least on the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.  They must assist in rehabilitating offenders and reintegrating them into the community by providing programmes and other interventions.

What we know is that the standards set out in the legislation are not being maintained, especially for those most in need of a strongly rehabilitative prison system, the high and high-medium security prisoners.

They are particularly not being upheld for those who have yet to be tried for their offences, the ‘remand’ prisoners.  Let me remind you what we know about these.  We know that one out of ten will be found not guilty, others released without trial and half will be found guilty and immediately released on ‘time served’. 

We found out recently in prison inspectors’ reports that remand prisoners are mostly treated as if they were high security, thus depriving them of opportunities for development (many are locked up 23 hours per day) and rehabilitation. Remand numbers as a proportion of total prisoners are still very high, especially for women.

Then there was the case, back in court for sentencing last week, of the 18 year old who was double bunked with a violent sexual predator. Was he put in with that predator because he was isolated and ‘in denial’ about his own offending, as some have suggested? As a form of punishment for non-compliance? I doubt if we will ever know.  How many other sexual predators are double-bunked with vulnerable young people? Or with anyone?

The prison system is not subject to the same scrutiny as other institutions of society, in general for good reasons.  But when a system is so clearly identified as in need of fundamental reform, as prisons have been through the Hokai Rangi policies adopted by Justice Minister Andrew Little (and presumably being followed through by his successor Kris Faafoi, although his press releases have not, to date, been about the prisons at all), there needs to be an openness about the progress of reform.

Labour has to see this through by itself.  With National reverting to its ‘tough on crime’ breast-beating, it might be quite easy to get distracted from this important work.  But the fundamental reform of the prison system is now at least 30 years overdue and in my view there is an urgency to make progress. You can do it, folks! And with few budgetary implications – the redesigned system should cost a lot less and do a lot more!  How many salaries are we paying out for prison officers to turn keys in multiple doors? There must be a better way.

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I assume that Minister Davis has the confidence of Cabinet and the Prime Minister, but I don’t detect in him any urgency for prison reform.  Associate Minister Willie Jackson has, in the past, expressed the need for change.  I wonder whether he should take on the Corrections portfolio and keep Associate Minister of Justice, all with a focus on reform of the systems of punishment in Aotearoa.  Kelvin Davis has quite enough to do with the Children and Crown/Māori relations portfolios, not to mention the troubled Tourism sector.

In short, this column supports Willie Jackson to be the prison reform czar, working across Corrections and Justice (and maybe it is time to bring Corrections back into the Justice fold?). He may not want this poisoned chalice, but sometimes you have to stand up and deliver!


Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society.  She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.


  1. If Kelvin Davis’ inertia and missteps are cabinet endorsed, then it may be necessary to approach an international forum to bring about the much needed prison reform.

  2. At what point do international organisations step in if a country is obviously on track to becoming a failed state?

    • I don’t think they can or do just step in, unless there’s something in it for them (aka the USA) like oil, strategic sea routes and so on. At the time New Zealanders were trying to get the National government to investigate atrocities perpetrated upon innocent Afghanistan peasants up in the Hindu Kush, there was talk of approaching a UN organisation, or the International Court of Justice ( in The Hague I think) , but I gather it may not have been easily feasible. We are obliged by various international treaties and agreements to behave like decent human beings, and the best that we may be able to hope for may be having sanctions imposed upon us if we violate them, as we seem to be doing with our disgraceful prison system.

  3. Decriminalise ALL street drugs and banish poverty.
    It works in Portugal and will, without a doubt, work in Oregon.
    The more truthful reason why those two things by themselves will likely never be implemented in AO/NZ is because there’s good coin in harvesting criminals, aye Boys?
    Lawyers, cops, insurers, banksters, loan sharks, the makers of medicinal head-fuck drugs, the MSM, the private security apparatus and private prisons like the ones run by serco, ‘the biggest company you’ve never heard of’, are all cashing in on human misery.
    The Guardian.
    Serco: ‘the biggest company you’ve never heard of’
    “Serco was celebrating a record number of contracts and surging profits until it was hit by scandal and ejected form the FTSE 100 index”
    Fucking about like the above is not going to work.
    Brave, new and direct action is waiting to be used. This latest cadre of useless, lazy, cowardly, well paid politicians are never, ever going to rock this particular boat.
    The natzo’s are hungrily hanging about in the shadows like the Hyena’s they are drooling at the specter of the opportunity to be gleefully vicious and cruel. You just watch the steam rise off collins’ eye brows when she reads that awful rape story. Typical of the terminally dumb natzo with a mean streak.
    ( No disrespect to actual Hyenas. )

    • Yes, Serco was not good at Mount Eden but take a good look at what has happened since they left (if you can extract the info from Corrections). The Department is even worse. They need a complete overhaul.

  4. So obvious really. Willie Jackson under utilised unsung and unappreciated. Guess he doesn’t lick arse too well…. Indeed why the hell should he? he has more political experience and acumen then the current Labour Leadership after all.

  5. So obvious really. Willie Jackson under utilised unsung and unappreciated. Guess he doesn’t lick arse too well…. Indeed why the hell should he? he has more political experience and acumen then the current Labour Leadership after all.

  6. Yes the prisons need to be reformed but so does the entire justice system need an overhaul and its a bloody big job that won’t happen overnight.

    • well Little did make a start for which he is to be commended. The sex crimes courts are a step in the right direction as is Hokai Rangi. What’s the hold up we need a string of drug courts and the repeal and rewrite of the Misuse of Drugs act. We also need NOW separate Remand facilities where people are still free to work their jobs if the charges are not serious.

      • What is your idea of a serious charge? I’m not sure I would want to be in a work place with an individual who is in remand but can still rock on up. Better to get wait times for trials right down.

        • drug charges for personal use are not serious. If there are no victims other than the defendant why the hell lock them up?
          Accumulated unpaid fines for anything from traffic/speeding fines,fines for any misdemeanor that remain unpaid and yes young men are frequently remanded for these things.

  7. Liz, you are right about prison reform. Theres only a few major considerations that you touch on: safety for everyone concerned is highest.

    Locking people up for punitive purposes seems ridiculously counter productive.

    Locking up people for the safety of the public is absolutely necessary.

    How we achieve this I dont know.

  8. Then there was the case, back in court for sentencing last week, of the 18 year old who was double bunked with a violent sexual predator. Was he put in with that predator because he was isolated and ‘in denial’ about his own offending, as some have suggested? As a form of punishment for non-compliance? I doubt if we will ever know.

    “I doubt if we will ever know.”

    Isn’t that what the justice system is supposed to do????? If a teenager was raped in prison then the police should be even more vigilant in making sure that these were not deliberate acts by prison officials.

    This follows on crimes against teenagers within the justice system itself. Or outside the justice system aka Roast busters.

    Time people under 24 were housed in separate prisons for youth aimed at rehabilitation in particular when on remand.

    And while we are about it, solve the educational and social problems which would help stem youth turning to crime in the first place!

    Funny how sleeping brought/ homelessness was solved during Covid no problem, hotels were found for them!

    Gang involvement growing 13% a year!

    Social problems from Meth and other drugs is now massive in NZ. Funny how those benefiting from those crimes (aka money launderers) seem to be minimised in NZ, and even actively encouraged to live in NZ like Sroubek (Gang connections, immigration fraud and drug smuggling). Part of the type of new citizen NZ is encouraging to live here to exploit others any way they can.

  9. The way NZ deals with crime seems to be related to wealth and that is a big problem! AKA vunerable towns do not get police resources unless someone in the police is particularly tenacious. Government have developed a system that does not work, they need to focus on the entire problem big and small, all locations in NZ, perpetrators and victims simultaneously.

    Frustrated emails from Kawerau constable to Police Commissioner Mike Bush led to downfall of Mongrel Mob president Frank Milosevic in Operation Notus drug bust

    The police officer’s on the ground should be supported to solve crimes from their leaders, not have to go through complicated hierarchical hoops to help their communities.

  10. Good item Liz.

    Kelvin will never be capable of improving the Corrections system. It needs someone with determination and ideas who is prepared to challenge the status quo. One of the many challenges will be to change the “culture” within the department. They are fixated on security, with preventing reoffending way down the priority list (in spite of what they say).

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