The prison population has dropped more than 7 percent in the past six months. Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis tells Laura Walters the immediate crisis has been averted.

A collection of briefing documents and memos from the Ministries of Justice and Corrections dating from November 2017 through to April paint a worrying picture of the prison system.

In the lead-up to the Government’s announcement it would build a new 600-bed facility at Waikeria, the headlines were littered with stories of over-crowded prisons, double-bunking, and the threat of stretchers or mattresses on the floors of prison hallways.

Documents obtained by Newsroom under the Official Information Act give weight to concerns about a prison system in crisis.

But work is being done in the background to slowly bring the system back from the brink.

In November, a Corrections briefing to Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis said the prison system needed 1742 additional places to meet forecast demand between then and 2021, on top of the places made available by the Waikeria build.

A month later, a memo from the Ministry of Justice warned “unless something changes, further decisions to build a new prison will be needed every 2‐3 years”.

By the end of last year, Corrections was operating with 1706 fewer places than required to maintain a safe and resilient prison network, the December memo said.

“A significant amount of disaster recovery and contingency capacity is currently being used to house prisoners.

“This places the prison network in a vulnerable state, without reserves to respond to unexpected increases in demand, or to respond in the event of a natural disaster.”

In November, Corrections said it was operating with “no reserves to respond to further unexpected growth”.

Some of the accommodation being used was described as “sub-optimal” or low quality, and usually considered “end of life”. Normally the spaces would only be considered suitable for use in emergencies due to their quality, and the risks and compromises associated with sustained operation.

Using this capacity also imposed additional operating costs, because of a need for higher staff-to-prisoner ratios to manage prisoners in double-bunked cells.

As well as extra operational costs, capital building costs were climbing, with the higher-than-expected $750 million cost of Waikeria, and $90m in capital to fund the rapid building of 600 emergency places by 2019.

“Increasing use of prisons is imposing ever higher costs, without corresponding social improvement,” one memo said.

How did we get here?

The documents lay out a series of complex factors which have led to the rapid growth in New Zealand’s prison population.

The memo from December said the prisoner population was largely driven by policy and practice, which meant it could be lowered.

However, this did not mean it would be an easy task.

Since 2015, there had been a more than 20 percent increase in the prison population and the reasons for this growth were complex, according to the papers.

“Prisons are experiencing pressure from growth across different stages of the justice system pipeline, with an increase in prosecutions for serious offending, increased use of custodial remand, longer stays on remand, reduced risk tolerance, including by the New Zealand Parole Board.”

The available data also showed the country was experiencing more serious crime.

The Corrections briefing paper said one possible explanation was the growing availability of methamphetamine and the downstream effects of this “scourge”.

And there were no signs of the supply of the country’s meth problems subsiding anytime soon.

Where are we now?

There has been limited coverage of the state of New Zealand’s prison system in recent months, but behind the scenes, Davis and Corrections have been working to get the population down.

The population peaked in March at 10,820 and on Tuesday had dropped to 10,035 – a 7.3 percent fall.

Instead of waiting for laws to change – an often slow and contentious political process – Davis has started tinkering at the edges.

The raft of briefings and memos suggested a range of potential measures, including legislative changes, adding additional capacity, and operational changes.

There has been a strong emphasis put on bail laws, which were amended in 2013. Since then there has been a rapid rise in the number of remand prisoners, and the length of stay.

Earlier this year, remand prisoners accounted for almost 30 percent of the prison population, with the numbers peaking about 4000. The remand population is now under 3000 (2944 on Tuesday).

Davis talks of a man he met in Rimutaka Prison who had been on remand for 22 months. He says more needs to be done to speed up the remand process: “Justice delayed is justice denied”.

However, Corrections analysis from the end of last year estimated only 100 places would be spared by amending bail laws.

Instead of waiting for laws to change – an often slow and contentious political process – Davis has started tinkering at the edges.

“In one aspect a lot has changed, and in another aspect, little has changed…We’re finding inefficiencies in the system and doing our best to eliminate them.”

Davis asked Corrections to identify its top 10 initiatives for safely reducing the prison population.

The initiatives included looking at how best to utilise electronic monitoring – something recommended in the briefing papers – and bail applications.

In the case of bail applications, those who have been charged are now given extra help filling out the form and access to their full contact information.

This allowed them to submit a proper bail application, with potential bail addresses, so when they came before the court, if a judge deemed them suitable for bail, it could begin immediately.

“We haven’t made any legislative changes, we’ve just found inefficiencies in the system and changed them; low-hanging fruit,” Davis says.

“I’m just surprised that the things that we’re doing hasn’t happened before.”

At the moment, the system was “defying the forecasts”, he says.

There is still more to be squeezed from those top 10 initiatives, which also include looking at transitional housing, remand, youth, iwi initiatives, and female prisoners. Then Davis will ask Corrections for the next 10 ideas.

“There’s now an environment where they’re free to be creative.”

It is unlikely tweaking around the edges will be enough to get to the goal of reducing the prison population by 30 percent in 15 years. And there is still an urgent need for new builds and fewer prisoners, Davis says. But these initiatives did free up a significant number of beds in the short-term.

“The immediate crisis is over,” he says.

Davis now hopes to work towards decommissioning double-bunking, a practice that’s been increasingly used as the population has risen but has also been widely criticised by human rights groups.

“Change will require strong individual and collective leadership, and significant effort across both the justice and wider social sectors,” according to the Ministry of Justice December 2017 memo.

Justice Minister Andrew Little has already had his plan to overturn the three strikes law scuppered by New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. And the National Party has continued its ‘tough on crime’ message – something that’s been a vote-winner in the past.

Meanwhile, Davis has also ramped up his fiscal argument, saying repeatedly during an interview with Newsroom: “it’s sound economics to safely reduce the prison population”.

It may be an argument that will win support from those on the right who saw the $110,000 per person, per year price tag as being a waste of the country’s money.

Target for Māori population

The December memo also said Davis would take options to Cabinet to adopt a target relating to the goal of reducing over‐representation of Māori in the system, following consultation with iwi.

Davis says there is no set target, other than the overall reduction target of 30 percent in 15 years.

But he would like to work towards lowering Māori representation to 15 percent.

“If we could reduce it to the 15 percent, which is the general population – we’d have the lowest incarceration rates in the world. It’s quite possible.”

Davis’ Ngāpuhi people are the most incarcerated group in the world.

“If there’s a minister with a vested interest in reducing the Māori prison population, it’s me. It’s my friends that I went to school with, it’s my extended whanau, it’s my hapu, it’s my iwi that are being incarcerated…

“I am totally engaged and engrossed in turning those statistics around. It would be good for Ngāpuhi , it’ll be good for Māori, but more importantly it’ll be good for all of New Zealand.”

The next step is continuing to work through Corrections’ plans for operational changes, while examining the feedback from the August justice summit.

Almost 700 people attended the summit, and those ideas are being distilled before Justice Minister Andrew Little takes his first suite of proposals to Cabinet before the end of the year.

Leave a comment