It was a scene that made the country stand up and take notice.

Labour MP Kelvin Davis, in his shorts and jandals, circling the dusty surrounds of the Christmas Island Detention Centre after being stonewalled from visiting the New Zealand citizens kept inside.

On the phone to a group of detainees as he looked down upon the Serco-run facility from scrubland above, one could be forgiven for thinking Davis was about to storm the fence.

“Tell the guys to stop pointing,” he said. “Just tell them to act natural.”

It was quite an extraordinary scene and one that squarely placed Davis as a strong voice in the Corrections sphere.

Now, after years in opposition and a fierce campaign against Serco in New Zealand, Davis is in charge.

Speaking to Newsroom from his office on the Beehive’s seventh floor, Davis is determined to address the cocktail of drugs, mental health, poverty, and poor literacy that is driving a crisis.

But to do that he will have to potentially drink the age-old political poison of appearing soft on crime.

Changing the narrative

While in opposition Davis preached a different approach to the Correction’s sphere, even suggesting party representatives come together and put politics aside to find a better answer.

He wants to look at (and has asked his officials to research) other countries and states where the prison population and offending has dropped so we can figure out how to emulate it here.

The Scandinavian countries are always held up as an example, but they don’t share the cultural issues that New Zealand grapples with. Davis points to Texas, however, as an example we need to explore.

One trap that he plans not to fall into is making rash decisions after particularly gruesome crimes in the community, or “sentinel events” as he calls them.

Kelvin Davis at a protest outside Mt Eden Prison. Photo: Getty

“There’s also this attitude that sentinel events have occurred in the community where one person has committed some heinous crime, we have a quick change in the law and then that drives up the prison population. We’ve got to take a really good look at what works in order to get that prison population on the downward slope.

“A lot of it was driven by media reporting of sentinel events and freaking people out, and you’re right, you had the Sensible Sentencing Trust jumping on the bandwagon…people don’t realise that crime has been dropping, people’s perception of crime is that it’s on the rise and the older people get, like plus-50, they think crime is worse than it’s ever been before, it’s actually getting better. So if our crime rate is dropping and our prison population is skyrocketing, what’s going on.”

Being tough on crime has not made New Zealand safer, Davis says, and if progress is to be made the politics need to be put aside.

A “fast law is a poor law” and making one just to keep a few votes is pointless.

“I know crime is an emotive thing but we’ve got to look at the research. We’ve got to say ‘OK, our gut says to lock all this group of people up, but what does the research say, what does the evidence say’.”

Reducing the population

There are currently about 10,500 people currently behind bars – numbers never before seen – and while that number grew under National, it increased even more under the previous Labour government.

The recent spike, however, has been largely driven by changes in 2013 to the Bail Act that made it tougher to get bail, particularly for violent and drug-related crimes.

It has led to a need for 10 times the number of prison beds than initially estimated, with the previous government assigning $1 billion to build a new prison in Waikato to cope with the pressure.

Earlier this year Davis’ predecessor Louise Upston sought advice from Corrections about how to curb the surging prison muster but refused to release the options publicly.

In Newsroom’s story, Davis – then opposition spokesman – said it “beggars belief” that the information was not being released.

When asked if he will now release the advice as he is in charge, Davis is flummoxed.

He hasn’t seen the documents provided to Upston as Cabinet protocols prevent this, but is unsure if he would be willing to release similar information once it arrives.

“I’d have to have a look at what it is, it would depend on the situation…my instinct is to say I don’t think there’s any sort of national secrets or anything, there’s just options that have been available. Then again, I’d have to see all the advice that comes in.”

One of those options that will likely be included is reversing the Bail Act changes.

Davis says he is looking at possibilities around this, but will likely face some opposition.

Newly-minted Justice Minister Andrew Little is not keen, stating he has no plans to revisit bail laws.

If they don’t do something immediately to reduce numbers, then the Government may have little choice but to continue with the new prison build.

They don’t want to, however, and with no contract signed should be able to pull out and divert the money elsewhere.

“The thing about Māori values, they’re actually universal values so if you’re talking about say, aroha, it means compassion and empathy – now don’t we want all prisoners to have compassion and empathy for people?”

This means that other “not ideal” options to house prisoners, including more double-bunking and smaller add-ons to existing prisons, are also being considered.

“These are the very issues that we’re grappling with. If we’re going to be successful at driving down prison numbers, are we going to build a white elephant?”

Māori values prison to be investigated

As a member of Labour’s Māori caucus and having campaigned in the prison sector for years, Davis is all too aware of the disproportionate number of Māori locked up.

More than half of prisoners are Māori, and reducing that percentage by even a fraction would have a huge impact on population numbers.

Davis caused waves earlier this year when he suggested turning Ngawha Prison in Northland into a facility based on Māori values – but not just for Māori prisoners.

It was an idea that had already been suggested by the now-absent Māori Party, but Davis’ proposal met with a lukewarm reception from the major players.

Bill English said Māori values were already incorporated into prisons where appropriate, while Little, then Labour leader, said the idea was not party policy despite Davis having talked to him about it in the past.

Now the idea is back on the agenda, with Davis having already asked Corrections officials for advice.

That included having a look at ideas that were being tried overseas.

“What do you call them, healing lodges or something in Canada and there’s something in Australia around Aboriginal people there. Is it working? I don’t know if it’s working but if it is might we adapt something to the New Zealand situation here?

If Davis does introduce ideas such as this, radical for the New Zealand prison system, and if they work, then the way we look at criminal justice could be changed forever.

“The thing about Māori values, they’re actually universal values so if you’re talking about say, aroha, it means compassion and empathy – now don’t we want all prisoners to have compassion and empathy for people?”

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