The benefits of open prisons have been recognised for decades. So why doesn’t New Zealand, where the majority of prisons are low-risk, follow international example? 

Open prisons have gained the backing of leading academic and legal experts. But New Zealand has been slow to adopt the idea, despite more than half our prison population being classified as low- or minimum-security risk.

Justice Stephen Kós -president of the Court of Appeal – has promoted open prisons as a much-needed alternative in our justice system. In a 2018 address to the Legal Research Foundation, he described an open prison as “prison, but not as we know it. And we need it”.

Open prisons aim to create conditions as close as possible to normal life. They are usually credited to Sir Alexander Paterson, British prison commissioner from 1922 to 1947. Paterson’s thinking: “You cannot train a man for freedom under conditions of captivity.” The first open prison in Britain, New Hall Camp, opened almost 90 years ago, in 1933.

In these low-security prisons, most inmates can work in the community during the day but return to prison before evening curfew. Prisoners are low-risk and the prison’s priorities are community reintegration, re-establishing family ties and reducing reoffending.

The benefits of open prisons have been recognised for decades. Writing in 1977, academics Howard Jones and Paul Cornes observed the less controlling regime of open prisons “makes more ‘normal’ social learning experiences possible for inmates”.

It’s not easy to appreciate the impact of closed prisons on the people inside them. Erwin James, a former UK prisoner has written about his transfer to an open prison after 18 years behind the “high walls, steel bars and razor wire” of a closed prison. He recalled gazing out across a nearby meadow” “Powerful emotions swelled inside me. I had forgotten what it was like to look into the distance.”

James described the importance of open prison in “helping to undermine the grip of institutionalisation, [and] offering measures of freedom and personal responsibility that are denied in closed prisons”.

In their research with inmates in a UK open prison, academics Bethany Statham, Belinda Winder and Daniel Micklethwaite note this relative freedom can be intimidating initially for prisoners because they have been institutionalised and unable to make decisions for themselves. Open prisons can consequently help prisoners readjust to normal life.

In the late 1990s, the then National government opened New Zealand’s first self-care units. These units enable prisoners to live in flatting-like situations, where they can learn to budget and cook meals in an approximation of normal living. Units are located either inside or next to prisons.

But this is the closest we get to open prisons and they only provide about 5 percent of our prison accommodation capacity. In contrast, 30 to 33 percent of prisoners in Finland and Norway are housed in open prisons or open prison wards.

So why don’t we have more of them? This is a particularly important question to answer because the majority of New Zealand prisoners (56.5 percent) are classified as being low- or minimum-security risk.

The Department of Corrections’ security classification system has five categories for sentenced prisoners: minimum, low, low-medium, high and maximum security. These reflect assessments of risk posed by a prisoner to others, both inside and outside prison.

The two lowest-risk categories (minimum and low) require an external risk score less than 17, as well as a low score for internal risk.

External risk is assessed by 18 factors, reflecting escape risk, behavioural stability, seriousness of offending and dangerousness, with a maximum score of 198. For example, a current or historic sentence of more than five years for sexual or violent offending has a possible score of 20.

Despite the majority of sentenced prisoners being classified low or minimum security, our prison real estate is geared to high-risk inmates.

Data obtained under the Official Information Act in mid-2020 indicated we had 422 minimum-security beds for 2,002 minimum-security prisoners. There were no low-security beds but 1,322 low-security prisoners. At the same time, we had 950 high-security prisoners and 5,393 high-security beds.

Justice Kós’ advocacy for open prisons points to a similar mismatch in our justice system. In his 2018 address, he said: “we have someone who is not dangerous, who is otherwise eligible for home detention – and simply because we have not thought up any alternatives to prisons, he or she has to go and spend time in one.”

His call for open prisons in New Zealand is humane and smart. It continues to be pertinent and urgently needed.

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