To say we have a crisis looming in our prisons is not quite right. It's probably worse than that.

Our prison muster is rising at a rate scarcely imaginable. In 2003, we had around 6100 prisoners. A year ago we hit a record 10,000, and a week or so back we ticked toward 10,600. If the Auckland housing crisis is the gold standard example of the realities of demand and supply, our prisons are platinum.

Corrections chief executive Ray Smith and his team are doing what they can, but options are running out. There are only so many double bunking options, only so many condemned wings that can be brought back into service; things can only expand so far before they go 'pop'.

Difficult decisions confront the new government.


Labour and its governing partners are against building new prisons. Fair play. Who among us can't think of better ways to spend a billion dollars; cut taxes, put the unemployed to work, build a giant laser to shoot holes in the moon. Almost anything sounds better than spending money on a prison.

But reality dictates we must confront this issue.

New Corrections minister Kelvin Davis was among the most impressive Opposition MPs. Now he heads the department, how will he do? Well, immediately pre-election I was not impressed by his lack of ideas. He, like the rest of us I suspect, was not envisaging a Labour party government until Jacinda Ardern took hold and when asked on The Nation for his plans during the campaign he looked clueless.

Last week he spoke to a Corrections meeting and said the right things about investing in prevention (the same rhetoric as Justice Minister Simon Powers, in John Key's first term), but Davis' difficulties are urgent and his aspirational ideas, while welcomed, are not going to cut it in the short term.


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Apart from building a prison, there is one immediate solution. The last government reversed the onus on bail, making it more difficult to get. Subsequently, remanded prisoners are a significant component of growth in the prison population. They make up about a third (around 3,000 people). That could be reversed, but if that was done, the media will focus acutely on any offending by somebody who would have otherwise been locked up. That political risk is daunting.

But if bravery is not on offer, creativity certainly needs to be.


One practical solution is expanding electronic monitoring (EM) – something that we're not exactly shy of in New Zealand. Our use of EM release is trailblazing. Per capita, we use it more than twice as much as the USA and nearly five times as much as England. As a result of this, our monitoring systems are state of the art, and with the falling costs of the bracelets, which essentially have the same components as a cheap cell phone, there's no reason not to be using it as much as we can. Incidentally, I visited the EM team and was surprised at how it looked less like dusty old Corrections and more like a branch of Google. The young fellow who toured me around was dressed in tight jeans and a loose pink t shirt. His age and style were typical of those on the floor. The technology and the personnel looked like the future.

EM provides many of the benefits of prison, but without many of the harms: offenders are punished and kept away from opportunities to commit crime, and often allowing people to stay in work. It's also a quarter of the cost and people on EM have lower recidivism rates.

Part of this EM solution requires housing options. One big problem for many people (whether it be for EM bail, home detention, or parole) is not having suitable accommodation. Instead of building prisons, then, supervised accommodation (with therapeutic support) outside the wire could be constructed or acquired.

Such options are used internationally and, adopted here, could extend the benefits of EM to significant numbers of prisoners who would be eligible but for a lack of appropriate accommodation. Cheaper and with greater benefits – it's a good looking option.

Certainly, the long-term solutions to our incarceration rates are policies that tackle the drivers of crime. Nobody could credibly argue otherwise. We must focus on those families and those communities that we know will supply the next generation of offenders. Until then, we can't escape the reality that we have to manage our prison muster and manage it fast.

Haste in this instance is necessary, but hardly desirable. New Zealand needs a mature conversation about crime and justice policies in order to garner consensus support, and that doesn't happen when decisions are being forced. Still, it's better now than when the crisis goes 'pop'.

Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He is an award-winning writer who specialises in research with practical applications.

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