12 Dec 2017

Why is our prison population booming and how can we fix things?

11:58 am on 12 December 2017

A different tack.


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Photo: RNZ/Claire Eastham-Farrelly

The new Justice Minister, Andrew Little, has wasted no time lamenting the terrible state of the prison system.

The number of prisoners has just passed a record 10,600 and, according to Little, could rise by almost 50 percent in the next decade.

In the meantime, a mega-prison to hold 3000 people will start being built in Waikato next year. The biggest right now - Rimutaka - holds just over 1000.

According to the Corrections Department, Māori make up more than 50 percent of the population. It estimates that while 30 percent of prisoners are gang members, 70 percent of those are Māori.

We asked an ex-prisoner, a politician, an academic, an NGO worker and a lawyer how things have gotten so bad, and what can be done to reverse the rapidly escalating projections.


Thinking back to my time, the remand section is quite a devastating place to do “non-time” - that’s what I would call it. People can spend a month there then get found not guilty and get released. But it’s too late. They’ve already learned the trade and connected up with people. Remand is a real networking place. It’s full of people preying on others. And of course, the majority have legal aid lawyers who can never get up to see them. The only time they get with them is a few minutes before their court appearance.

Fete Taito.

Fete Taito. Photo: Supplied

In prison, the environment is the problem. It’s a macho place where men strut their stuff and try to be the toughest. Those rehab programmes are just bullshit. They’re trying to do good but they don’t have any effect. You do an anti-violence course but then you return to your wing. You do an anti-violence course but then you’re released and you’re right back in that same bad environment.

For so many of our Māori and Pacific people in marginalised areas, crime is their reality. When you’re in jail, you live among criminals, and when you get released you return to those struggling areas that are full of the same people. We have to fix up these regions.

For me, changing my mindset and getting out of all that, I stepped out of my world and threw away my phone and cut connections with all those types of people. When I did my first crime it just became a cycle and for 35 years it felt like I couldn’t escape.

We need politicians to come out and say they’re going to tackle our Māori offending rates. They have to say it. That’s the language they’ve got to use. And they’ve got to tackle the problem at its source - in our communities. They’ve got to change the mentality of so many Māori who don’t feel like they are part of general society. I’ve been in prison over four decades and I’ve never come across a Māori prisoner who felt like they’re part of society and they have a chance to do well.


Julia Whaipooti, a spokesperson for JustSpeak.

Julia Whaipooti, a spokesperson for JustSpeak. Photo: Guy Ryan

Part of the problem is the Bail Amendment Act. We want that act repealed. We think by doing that, the prison population would quickly drop below 10,000 again. We’re seeing more people held in remand before being tried or sentenced. There was an almost 100 percent increase in that backlog since the act came into effect (In 2013, the Bail Amendment Act passed making it tougher for people to access bail, as defendants have to prove they should be released, rather than prosecutors).

Our prison population has been growing, but our crime rate has remained relatively static. Prisons have been quite ineffective in preventing people from reoffending. They’ve become a university for crime. There’s a real lack of resources in terms of rehabilitation programmes for prisoners both within prison and after their release.

The system has also been failing Māori. Perhaps we need an independent inquiry into why there is such a high proportion of Māori in our prisons? We know Māori are treated more harshly at every step of our justice system and are more likely to get worse outcomes. Corrections has acknowledged this and said it wants to address the problem, but we’re still without a definitive strategy.

We should be empowering Māori and giving them the resources to take a kaupapa approach.


We’ve got record numbers of people in prisons because we’ve made decisions to put record numbers of people in prisons. One would be changes to the bail laws in 2013, which are keeping far more people in remand .

Liam Martin, a Victoria University criminologist.

Liam Martin, a Victoria University criminologist. Photo: Supplied

Essentially, all the increases in the prison population since 2013 are in remand. You can also look at changes to the parole laws in 2001, which has led to rapid increases in the number of people serving out their sentences.

I also believe we should think of our record prison numbers as a symptom of inequality and institutional racism and our bigger social problems.

There’s a proposal to start building our biggest ever prison next year in Waikato. This is an example of our skewed priorities. We have the number one rate for homelessness in the OECD and we’re spending huge amounts on prisons. We could be spending that money building new homes. We could be investing that money in social policies we know work to make communities safer - places where we know our prisoners come from.

Fixing this problem could be done relatively easily, whether it’s reversing the changes to our bail or parole laws. An issue is the politics involved in these decisions. There’s strong political interest in further prison expansion, such as from large private operators like Serco.


Labour's Jacinda Ardern and Andrew Little.

Labour's Jacinda Ardern and Andrew Little. Photo: Brad White/RNZ

We’ve had about 30 years of public discourse that says we need to have longer and tougher sentences. We’ve become too punitive in our approach to criminal justice and we’re locking up more people for longer.

We know that many prisoners have mental issues like depression or traumatic brain injuries and so a prison needs to be place where someone can get well. We need to decide if we want to help them or just punish them.

We’ll have a close look at things like how parole and bail are being managed. We want to provide better assistance to people when they get out. I’m not sure if we need to change the law - we’ll seek advice on that and ask the public as well - but we do have to think differently. We need a more comprehensive strategy across Government agencies, and NGOs and private agencies as well. I know there are iwi keen to help people who are offending or at-risk.

We can be a lot more humane to our prisoners. We can look at Scandinavian countries, for instance, where those who enter the system are certainly punished, but are also given health screening and are sought to be understood on an individual basis. As they work through their sentences, their conditions improve so that when they’re released, they know how to take care of themselves and what it means to hold down a job. We have a responsibility to ensure prisoners are fit to reenter society.


Criminal lawyer Michael Bott.

Criminal lawyer Michael Bott. Photo: RNZ/Phil Pennington

What we’re doing is damaging people who are already damaged. We’re breaking up families and people are coming out of prison worse than when they went in.

We have an attitude whereby we think the greater the penalty, the stronger the message. This is an issue that requires the media, and us as a society, to stop sensationalising crime. Our punitive model has been ramping up sentences and people are getting locked away for longer. While this is easy to sell politically, there’s no great proof that stronger penalties lead to a drop-off in crime. Evidence shows the more punitive approach you take, the more likely reoffending becomes.

We need to keep prisoners in closer contact with their families so we don’t break up homes. We need to provide more and better education for prisoners. We need to provide them with more job skills. Right now, they’re spending most hours everyday locked in their cells and the rehabilitation they’re offered is bare minimum. This will require a legislative change.

Interviews edited for brevity and clarity.