Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: A better answer to the looming jail

Photo / Bay of Plenty Times
Photo / Bay of Plenty Times

There's a simple reason the new Auckland prison is rising up beside the barbaric old Victorian monstrosity it is to replace.

We New Zealanders have an insatiable appetite for locking one another up, but we don't like being reminded of our fetish.

So we object wildly to the idea of a jail being built anywhere near where we live, or work or might pass by.

In 2004, the Corrections Department warned of the "high likelihood of service failure, the consequences of which would be catastrophic" if the existing Mt Eden prison, which was "substandard and unsafe", remained in use.

The jailers warned of "potential injury or loss of life" and litigation for damages by inmates' families.

With the prison population ever growing, and neighbourhood protests guaranteed to delay or stop a new prison being built anywhere else in the city, the only feasible choice was to build on the existing site.

As the new prison emerges alongside the motorway, Mayor John Banks is repeating the claims he made three years ago, that this "architectural monstrosity" will give visitors the wrong impression. That it will say "welcome to the aspirational capital of New Zealand where you jail people".

He protesteth too much.

How will anyone driving past this faux commercial building know what's going on inside its bland exterior? It's not as though there are going to be giant fluorescent signs, signalling "Chez Corrections".

And within minutes of passing it visitors will be exiting the motorway on to Nelson St where they'll drive down a bleak avenue of much more ghastly, jail-like, accommodation blocks.

By the time they pass the monolithic SkyCity block, they'll be asking the taxi driver to turn back to the nice new building we first passed, thinking the new prison must have been Auckland's classiest hotel.

Mr Banks is turning a blind eye to two Auckland realities. This is a city of architectural monstrosities, many approved during his first term as mayor.

And we are a city - and people - who enjoy jailing people. If we adopted the penal policies of more civilised countries, we wouldn't be having this row. The new prison wouldn't be needed.

It's not just the bleeding heart liberals who say so. Not unless the Treasury is a secret hot-bed of wimpering do-gooders.

In the Treasury's November 2009 report Challenges and Choices: New Zealand's long-term fiscal statement, it noted the steady rise of imprisonment rates. "In 1999, New Zealand imprisoned 150 people per 100,000.

In 2009, the imprisonment rate has increased to 195 people per 100,000 and under current policy settings this rate is forecast to reach 225 per 100,000 by 2017." It said our incarceration rates were "significantly higher than rates in Australia, England, Ireland and Canada" and, within the OECD, surpassed only by Mexico, Czech Republic, Poland and the United States.

In a direct jab at Government policy, the report says, "given that New Zealand's imprisonment rate is already one of the highest in the OECD and recent increases have had little impact on recorded crime rates, it is unlikely that further increases in our imprisonment rate will be the most cost-effective way to achieve lower crime rates".

The report concludes, "investing in reducing the number of people who enter the criminal justice system would likely provide better value for money - and better societal outcomes - than locking up more people".

In 1880, around the time the old Mt Eden prison was built, we were locking people up at the rate of 128 per 100,000. By 1950, that had dropped to 56 per 100,000. In the two decades between 1990 and 2009, the incarceration rate soared from 117 to 195 per 100,000.

It costs more than $90,000 a year to keep a person in prison says the Treasury. On top of that, prison building is projected to cost $915 million over the next decade - plus ongoing costs of another $150 million a year.

The scandal is how we squander so many tax dollars on this national fetish. If the politicians don't like the in-the-face embarrassment this prison triggers, they know the solution. Stop churning out inmates.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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