3. Waikeria decision reopens painful debate

With a mega prison ruled out, what are the alternatives and how can the justice sector be reformed long-term? Photo: Getty

There will be no mega-prison at Waikeria. So where will all the inmates go? Shane Cowlishaw explores the alternative options, and the potential political fallout of the Government’s decision that include a painful reopening of the debates around bail and sentencing laws.

It’s one of the most perplexing decisions facing the Government, and it appears to have at least partially been made.

When Nanaia Mahuta dropped the pie on Sunday, telling Marae that the Government wouldn’t be putting $1b into a huge expansion of Waikeria Prison near Hamilton, Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis had no choice but to confirm.

Not approving the mega-expansion, which would have seen space for 3,000 prisoners created, is the strongest indication yet that bold changes are likely for the justice system.

A u-turn on stricter bail and parole laws are highly possible, while more lenient sentences are also an option.

Those missing extra beds do complicate matters though: the spectre of make-shift cells in prison gyms and stretchers in hallways was raised by Corrections boss Ray Smith earlier this year.

It may have been slightly hyperbolic rhetoric from Smith, but there is no argument that the prison population trajectory is heading in only one direction.

To cope the Government announced last week in the budget that an extra 600 beds will be introduced as part of an expanded modular cell build.

But with the prison population having jumped by more than 1200 between 2016 and 2017, these are likely to be gobbled up as soon as they are ready under the status quo.

What are the alternatives?

It’s likely there will still be some kind of development on the Waikeria grounds, just not as large as expected.

The prison, built in 1911, is unfit for purpose and can currently accommodate 650 prisoners.

Unions have been raising concerns about staff safety at the facility for some time and by today’s standards, the prison does not provide adequate living and rehabilitation facilities for those locked up there.

Refurbishing the existing prison would likely be too costly.

With the mega-expansion not going ahead, a more modest facility could take its place.

The Corrections Association wants at least 2,000 beds but exactly what it looks like, and what its aim is, is the real question.

Prison reformist Kim Workman said he had seen the plans for the original Waikeria expansion and found them disappointing.

They were based on an old, traditional prison model that allowed for double-bunking and hindered any chance of rehabilitation.

He pointed to new designs used in Germany and Scandinavia that were built on a concept of normalisation, emulating conditions that existed back in society.

“You build prisons where prisoners can exercise accountability, responsibility, they’re not constantly surveilled and searched and they’re not locked up for 22 hours a day.

“That requires a different thinking and it will be interesting to see whether the new prison might have some of those features.”

If a smaller prison is built, it will leave less wriggle room if the population keeps expanding.

Workman has previously stated that the Government’s goal of reducing prison numbers by 30 percent during the next 15 years is easily achievable and points to a recent example in the United States.

In Maryland, the incarceration rate dropped by 10 percent in a year, driven by a relaxation of those kept on remand, more lenient sentences for non-violent offences and a boost to drug and alcohol treatment delivered in the community, rather than behind bars.

It sounds great, but even Workman acknowledged a major stumbling block for New Zealand.

“The difficulty I think is in the states they’ve had huge success but in almost every case, I don’t think there are any exceptions, there’s been bipartisan cooperation between Republicans and Democrats.”

The political hot potato

Not many things get politicians quivering like the thought of being described as ‘soft on crime’.

New Zealand history is littered with high-profile cases where horrific crimes have led to law changes with wide-reaching effects.

One example is murderer Phillip John Smith’s trickery to abscond to Brazil while on temporary release. It led to temporary release conditions being tightened across the system and some prisoners found themselves unable to continue working in the community.

More relevant to the current situation is the murder of teenager Christie Marceau, stabbed to death in 2011 by Akshay Chand while he was on bail for kidnapping her several weeks earlier.

The public outcry led to National reforming the bail law, making it much tougher - particularly for those awaiting trial - to get bail.

Initial official advice, however, vastly underestimated the impact the change would have on prisoner numbers. The later estimate of the size of the rise in prisoner numbers that would result from reversing the burden of proof back onto those seeking bail was ten times larger than the original estimate.

Not cracking down on serious crime has long been viewed as political poison in politics, and an easy hit for the Opposition.

Most recently, new Opposition leader Simon Bridges has adopted the tactic repeatedly, introducing several private member’s bills in the law and order space and attacking the Prime Minister in the house.

While Bridges has indicated a willingness to work together on issues such as child poverty and mycoplasma bovis, justice is unlikely to join that list.

Jarrod Gilbert, a sociologist at the University of Canterbury, said that made the Government’s position particularly ambitious.

While the public was much more open to the idea that the prison population was too high, it was possibly not entirely on board yet about what it meant to make those changes, he said.

Until then it remained a political hot potato, one that left any decisions feeling “very delicate and risky”, vulnerable to public outcry.

Gilbert said loosening bail and parole laws only tackled incarceration, not the issue of crime, and more mature media reporting and public and political conversations were needed.

“It’s taken us a generation to get into these problems, it will take us a generation to get out.

"The fact of the matter is, there are certain social and economic communities that are contributing to our prison populations … until we sort that out, anything we do is just short-term thinking full of issues.”