Waikeria prison: Government ditches mega-prison, goes with small rebuild

The Government has scrapped plans for a 1500- to 2000-bed prison in rural Waikato, saying mega-prisons don't work.

Instead, the Government will replace Waikeria's high-security unit with a 500-bed unit, and will build a 100-bed mental health facility, as reported by Newshub earlier on Wednesday.

Once the new beds are built and the old prison decommissioned, it will result in 174 additional beds at a cost of $750 million.

The mega-prison option had aimed to address overcrowding issues already affecting the entire system. The Government will need to find new solutions for housing the increasing prison population or it will have to decrease the number of people sentenced to time in prison in the first place.

Something had to happen at Waikeria

Pretty much everyone agrees Waikeria Prison's high-security section is in poor condition, so the Government has practically no choice but to make changes.

The high-security wing is "not conducive to the humane treatment of prisoners, safety or rehabilitation", a prison inspectorate's report from August 2017 found. It said even motivated prisoners would struggle to rehabilitate in the wing.

The report said gangs had significant influence on life in the high-security wing, and violence was part of daily life. The facility's continued use was the result of the growing prison population, it said.

That prison population is projected to increase from just over 10,000 to more than 12,000 by 2022.

What the Government will build

The Government says the previous Government's planned prison would have created a "super-sized [factory] that just [turns] low-level criminals into hardened criminals".

Instead, it will demolish the run-down high-security wing, replacing it with a new 500-bed facility. It will also build a 100-bed mental health unit - the first of its kind in New Zealand. The Government has also approved 976 "rapid builds" across the prison network. Funding for those came from the Budget, which made provision for 600 pop-up prison beds. The other 376 rapid builds were already on the way.

The decision to build a much smaller prison than initially planned could lock the Government into an ideological law-and-order debate for the next two years.

Law and order is a battleground

The Government has a target of reducing the prison population by 30 percent over 15 years, and planned reform of the justice system will be part of that. Justice Minister Andrew Little has been signalling too many "low-level offenders" are imprisoned while on bail ahead of trial or sentencing. Reform could also mean more people serving home detention instead of prison time.

National has been focusing strongly on law-and-order, especially bail law. It has continuously hammered the Government on what it plans to do with bail and parole, for which the Government has no solid plans.

On June 1, National published a petition calling on Winston Peters to refuse to repeal three strikes, also saying loosening up bail will mean "more serious offenders out on the streets".

It's a sensitive area and one that resonates with voters, including those that could be wooed away from Government coalition partner New Zealand First. New Zealand First and its supporters have long been conservatives when it comes to law and order. Mr Peters says the party supports justice reform, but it was an apparent change of mind from New Zealand First that forced Mr Little into an embarrassing back-down on three strikes repeal on Monday.

The debate has most recently turned to "low-level offenders". On Wednesday, National's Mark Mitchell used Question Time to ask Mr Little what, exactly, "low-level" means. Mr Little says it's "those who are not committing violent offenses", as well as "people committing street crimes... those with mental health issues".

According to Corrections data, more than half the prison population is low- or minimum-security. Thirty-seven percent of prisoners have been sentenced for a violent offence, 20 percent for "dishonesty", 20 percent for sexual offences and 13 percent for drugs and anti-social offences.

Prisoners according to offence type.
Prisoners according to offence type. Photo credit: Corrections

The Government was planning to announce the dismantlement of three strikes ahead of the Waikeria announcement so it could say it is working on changes to reduce the rate of population growth on more than one front. Now any changes won't be happening for a while. Mr Peters has indicated he wants to look at justice reform as a whole package, after a review, which itself hasn't been announced properly.

We're getting more cops, ergo more arrests

There's another challenge when it comes to a goal of reducing the prison population.

Labour promised New Zealand First to "strive toward" adding 1800 more cops to the beat. Logic would suggest if you get more police officers, there will be more arrests. That's what a Cabinet paper leaked to Newshub warned. Cabinet papers are documents prepared across government departments for ministers to present to the Cabinet.

In the paper, both the Ministry of Justice and Corrections warn the increase in police officers will result in 650 to 900 more beds needed in prison.

Mr Little disputes that. He told Select Committee on Monday some policing can reduce numbers in prison. Police Minister Stuart Nash agrees.

"Once the 1800 more police are rolled out into our communities, I believe our prison population will drop," he told Newshub.

But in his speech from Waikeria, Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis acknowledged more cops could mean more prisoners. He said the prison population is projected to rise by 1700 in 2021 and that projection takes into account "the possible impact of increase Police numbers."

He said the Government will address that issue by adding 1000 extra beds to the prison network.

Short-term plans to reduce the prison population

Kelvin Davis announced four issues Corrections can look at to reduce the prison population:

  • Removing administrative barriers that prevent the release of those eligible for bail
  • Extra support for defendants on bail
  • Speeding up court appearances for those remanded in custody
  • Replicating the success of the Alcohol and Drug Courts
  • Housing and support services for 300 people a year

Mr Davis says Corrections is on track to save 150 beds per year.