Rowena Orejana.
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An undesirable newcomer is distressing a Wiri neighbourhood - and they haven't even moved in yet, writes Rowena Orejana.

The Sisters of Mercy house sits in a quiet Wiri neighbourhood on Trevor Hosken Drive. Sister Anne Hurley meets us at the door - a small silver crucifix hanging around her neck the only sign of her vocation.

"We've been here for 20 years already," she tells us. "Actually, today marks my 49th year as a nun. Well, it's been 49 years since I walked through the gates of the convent."

Last year, Manurewa residents, including the sisters, became locked in a battle with the Department of Corrections over a proposed four-storey jail for 1500 men on the land next to the Auckland Region Women's Correction Facility.

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The battle has been draining Sister Anne's energy. "It is both a daunting process to be involved in," she says, "and a bit disempowering to people like me."

Sister Anne says it has been difficult understanding the department's point of view.

"I consider myself a fairly literate and educated person. I have been a teacher for a number of years but even I can't read through these," she says, picking up volumes three and four of the department's responses. Both are 6cm thick, containing hundreds of pages of arguments and addenda.

The nuns' contentions are both legal and philosophical.

The Environment Court had previously restricted the use of the land to the area where the women's jail now stands.

"But we have always been philosophically against prisons," Sister Anne says. "They are punitive, horrible and dehumanising."

Forty per cent of jail sentences are for drug and alcohol-related offences for which the jail term is shorter than a year. "They go there and meet up with other crims. They come out and they're no better off.

Sister Anne says the Government needs to address the causes of offending and offer life-changing alternatives.

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"I'm not excusing crime. Someone broke into our home once and I didn't like it."

However, she considers that a lot of research points to imprisonment being an ineffective method of crime prevention.

The December deadline for submissions for and against the new jail has come and gone. The board of inquiry hearings will open on May 2.

In a submission to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Auckland Council and the Manurewa Local Board voiced strong opposition to the proposed jail, saying that the Corrections Department had not addressed the social, environmental and traffic infrastructure issues that would adversely affect the community.

They also note that no assessment of alternative sites was carried out.

Sister Anne says she and her fellow objectors are disappointed with elected officials pushing for the men's jail.

"There seems to be a prison mania in this country," she says. "Instead of spending money on this, they should be looking for ways to bring the number [of criminals] down."

Punishing reality

  • Jails are expensive, costing $91,000 to hold one person for a year.
  • Two-thirds of released prisoners are reconvicted and reimprisoned within four
    years.
  • Every additional year in jail  increases the likelihood of reoffending.