The dire state of our prison system is laid bare in a report by the Department of Corrections which says building a mega prison is the only answer to our ballooning prison population.

In a briefing to former Minister of Corrections Louise Upston in April 2017, Corrections warned it was already on a "disaster" footing and was fast running out of room to house prisoners.

The briefing spells out how Corrections was repeatedly wrong-footed by Ministry of Justice predictions of prisoner numbers and how the mega prison plan was scaled up from a proposed 1000-bed facility to a $1 billion facility that was double that size.

The new Government is facing a crunch point over its plans to reform the criminal justice sector and the reality of a tsunami of prisoners threatening to overwhelm the prison system.

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The 10,695 current prison population and its forecast growth is a legacy of "tough on crime" policies, now threatening to wash away plans to reduce prisoner numbers and a focus on prevention and treatment.

The April 2017 report to Upston warned Corrections faced the prospect of operating illegally if Waikeria Prison was not allowed to expand.

The report showed Ministry of Justice projections of prisoner numbers were repeatedly wrong - in early 2015, again in early 2016 and again in July 2016.

Upston was told the most recent predictions of prisoner numbers at that stage showed there was no room for the number of inmates coming.

The huge increase in prisoners numbers was driven by increasing numbers of people being held on bail awaiting trial - a consequence of the Bail Amendment Act 2013 - and increasing numbers of people arrested for violent offences.

Justice Minister Andrew Little, Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pledged to Maori - more than half our prison population - that change is coming. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Justice Minister Andrew Little, Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pledged to Maori - more than half our prison population - that change is coming. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Justice sector observers have also pointed to the Parole Act 2002 - which kept people inside longer - as adding to the growing swell of prisoners coming through the system.

Corrections said a July 2016 forecast showed it would be unable to house 1450 prisoners by 2025 even with urgent building and double-bunking taking place.

Corrections also warned Upston those projected inmate numbers were wrong just six months later, with the number of prisoners 800 above what had been predicted.

"A rapid and urgent capacity response (is required) to enable ongoing performance of the Department's statutory obligations," the submission stated.

It stated that the department had identified old and emergency prison facilities that could soak up some of the numbers.

"The urgent capacity measures will only enable the department to operate a viable prison network in the shorter term."

Inside a high-security wing at Waikato's Waikeria Prison. Photo / Michael Craig
Inside a high-security wing at Waikato's Waikeria Prison. Photo / Michael Craig

The briefing to the Minister stated that Corrections was "already using capacity reserves that are ordinarily either only used in the event of a large scale disaster" or in emergency events like prison riots.

It said beyond short-term measures lay the "risk of inefficiencies and overcrowding".

The report said it created the risk of increased inmate violence, self-harm and suicide by inmates, staff working in unsafe conditions, an inability to offer effective rehabilitation and prisoners being put in prisons that didn't match their security rating.

It said the risks created the potential for Corrections to be left operating unlawfully because of "the department's ability to deliver its statutory obligations and core objectives".

"Significant consequences are likely to result if the capacity shortage and management of predicted prison growth is not addressed effectively within the prison network.

"If the long-term forecasts are realised, the prison network does not currently have sufficient capacity to cope with the increased demand."

The briefing stated Corrections had been working on a plan to house the growing number of prisoners.

A cell inside Waikeria Prison's high-security unit. Photo / Michael Craig
A cell inside Waikeria Prison's high-security unit. Photo / Michael Craig

It said the expansion of Waikeria Prison was considered the fastest and most cost-effective way of housing the growing number of inmates.

But the document also revealed how the size of the Waikeria Prison expansion ballooned to keep pace with the Ministry of Justice's frequently revised, inaccurate forecasts.

The urgency of a solution drove Corrections to use land it already owned because of the time it would take to buy new property and get the necessary legal approvals.

Containing cost was also a factor, with a mega prison providing "operational efficiencies" through pooling functions like security checkpoints and services like sewerage. It would also allow "larger scale" rehabilitation and reintegration programmes.

The briefing said Corrections' dismissed the prospect of increasing capacity across its prison network because it would cost more, be harder to manage and be less effective for rehabilitation and integrating prisoners back into society.

It identified alternative options for an expansion - Springhill (north Waikato) and Auckland Prison at Paremoremo.

Justice Minister Andrew Little has said prison is not the answer to solving New Zealand's crime issues.
Justice Minister Andrew Little has said prison is not the answer to solving New Zealand's crime issues.

At that stage, Corrections was looking at a 1000-bed expansion or a larger option of 1680 beds.

It initially settled on a 1500-bed option - announced by Judith Collins as Corrections minister in October 2016.

But in January 2017 it found the actual number of prisoners well beyond Ministry of Justice projections and boosted the size of the expansion to 2000 beds.

The report stated the entire Waikeria Prison expansion would see it built as a high-security prison, even though it would house inmates with minimum security ratings.

In contrast, other prisons across New Zealand allow prisoners with minimum security ratings to prepare for release and reintegration through shared housing with other inmates in less institutionalised settings.

The mega prison would see "prisoners with lower security classifications … housed in high security accommodation units but …managed with less restrictive conditions".

"It is the facility that has the high security rating, not necessarily the prisoner inside it."

The submission set out rehabilitation expectations, although said "without an increase in funding, provider capacity would not be able to meet demand".

It stated that the department was seeking more money from government to develop its most successful programmes.

The submission spelled out the background and issues of the 19,000 inmates it expected to house over the next year.

It described prisoners as having a "range of social and economic deficiencies that increase their likelihood of offending".

Of those heading for prison, 10,450 (55 per cent) will have been receiving a benefit of some sort, 6840 (36 per cent) will have a mental health condition, 8930 (47 per cent) will have alcohol or drug dependency and around 12,350 (about 65 per cent) will not have basic qualifications in literacy or numeracy.

Davis said in a statement he received regular briefings "on the challenges of the capacity crisis".

The high-security unit exercise yard at Waikeria Prison, Waikato. Photo / Michael Craig
The high-security unit exercise yard at Waikeria Prison, Waikato. Photo / Michael Craig

He said he was expected Corrections to meet its legal obligations to a prisoner's minimum entitlements and that the department did everything it could to do so.

"Ageing facilities and the increasing prison muster does make it more difficult to maximise rehabilitation and reintegration.

"I'm currently working with officials on how we can make education, rehabilitation and reintegration services in prisons more innovative and effective."

Despite only having 2 per cent wiggle room with space for just 300 more prisoners,
National Commissioner Rachel Leota said: "We aren't overcrowded and don't compromise on safety, but we have been forced to reopen some ageing and cramped facilities at the site which are well past their best.

"These are also not up to the modern standard for maximising rehab opportunities."

She said Corrections was adding 900 extra spaces and also had a plan for an additional 1000 in the event of an emergency.

It would do so through double-bunking bedrooms in self-care units - the communal units for prisoners with low security ratings - as well as using police and court cells.

She said Corrections was also using 208 beds at Rimutaka Prison which had been designated for disaster recovery.