Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Official nod makes Wiri biggest prison precinct

Colleen Brown stands at the site of a new prison looking over McLaughlins Mountain. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Colleen Brown stands at the site of a new prison looking over McLaughlins Mountain. Photo / Steven McNicholl

The South Auckland suburb of Wiri will become the country's biggest prison precinct now approval has been given for a 1060-bed men's jail.

A fast-track board of inquiry initiated by Environment Minister Nick Smith last November has ruled that the controversial $370 million project can go ahead subject to 124 conditions, including community and Maori committees and $250,000 a year to avoid or reduce the jail's social and cultural impact.

The jail will be built and operated under a 25-year contract by one of three private consortiums which submitted their final bids for the project yesterday.

Manurewa Local Board member Colleen Brown, who chairs the Vision Manukau coalition formed to oppose the jail, said the decision was "gutting" for a community which was already one of the most deprived in the country.

"It's just one of those facts of life living in Manurewa, which means that if things happen in our community, done by people from outside the community, we get stigmatised," she said.

But Tahuna Minhinnick of local iwi Ngati Te Ata, whose mother Nganeko Minhinnick fought a long court battle against a women's prison opened on an adjoining site in 2006, said the iwi supported the new jail on condition that the winning consortium trained Maori prisoners to do kaitiaki (environmental) work such as cleaning up the nearby Puhinui Stream.

He said all the consortium had "embraced the concept of kaitiaki" with "some pretty stunning ideas".

"It's on our ancestral land. We've spent our life objecting to it," he said. "But in our first engagement with the Department of Corrections, they asked us under what conditions would we support it. Our response was the kaitiaki plan."

Auckland Mayor Len Brown, whose council opposed the jail, said the complex board decision would take some time to digest.

The 18ha site for the men's jail was originally designated for use by the women's prison for "inmate employment skills, pre-release training, horticulture and gardening, fitness trails and training areas, and cultural and spiritual development".

But since 2006, the 152-bed women's jail has been expanded to 464 beds, partly through double-bunking, and the planned women's uses of the area outside the existing prison wall have been abandoned. The board has decided to limit the women's jail to 480 beds. Its decisions do not affect the neighbouring youth prison in Kiwi Tamaki Rd, off Roscommon Rd, which has 52 beds.

The combination of all three prisons with almost 1600 prisoners will make Wiri by far the country's biggest prison precinct, ahead of Waikeria (1031), Spring Hill (1018) and the rebuilt Mt Eden jail and remand prison (966).

The board of inquiry accepted research evidence that violent crime typically increased in areas around prisons, partly because at least 5 to 6 per cent of prisoners' families usually moved into the surrounding area so prisoners tended to stay there after their release. But it said 42 per cent of all prisoners sentenced last year were sentenced in Auckland courts, including 20 per cent in South Auckland, so the new jail would give families better access to their menfolk.

It said building the jail in Auckland would also facilitate access to social services and "provide more opportunities for employment for those workers that are eligible for release-to-work programmes and upon their release".

- NZ Herald

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