Corrections boss hopeful department can cope with prisoner rise

Corrections chief executive Ray Smith is hopeful a building expansion programme will be enough to cope with a rising prison population. Photo: Getty

Corrections boss Ray Smith is hopeful the ongoing expansion to the prison system will be enough to keep up with the surging population.

Appearing before the justice select committee, Smith said the unexpected rapid rise in prisoner numbers, particularly amongst female prisoners, had been challenging.

The department had realised about two years ago that it needed to rapidly up capacity and almost every prison in the country was now undergoing some sort of development or extension.

Double-bunking had been intensified and now about 40 percent of the prison estate was double-bunked.

The old Rimutaka jail had also been reopened and now housed 112 women, a direct result of a rise of more than 50 percent in five years in the female prisoner population, he said.

Smith was coy when quizzed about the planned $1 billion Waikeria prison build, which the Government will soon decide whether to pursue or not, and whether Corrections could cope without it.

Future projections showed prisoner growth was expected to slow and in the event of a disaster, there were plans to house people temporarily behind the wire.

“As long as the forecasts hold, and you just don’t know, to be honest, we have a pretty good building planning line to get us through.

“We can accommodate up to another 1000 people if we had to...we have stretchers, we could put people up in gyms, so we’d be able to keep up to about 1000 people inside the secure perimeters...if we had that type of natural disaster.”

He admitted the system had at times been pushed to its limits, particularly with the female and remand populations, but praised his staff for their efforts.

“I think we’ve done a phenomenal job, there hasn’t been a single day that we’ve missed a beat so every person whose needed to come to prison has come and every person and every person who's had to go to court has gone, or a hospital, or whatever.”

The high prison population is one of the first major tests faced by the new Government, who will have to make some immediate choices about whether to continue to spend heavily on infrastructure or make legislative change to try and reduce numbers.

Newsroom has requested under the Official Information Act the options provided to the new Government for reducing the prison muster, but both Corrections and Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis have failed to respond.