14 Jun 2018

Govt's Waikeria prison decision shows no 'cohesive plan'

6:09 pm on 14 June 2018

A solution to the deteriorating Waikeria prison is pleasing some, but others are calling it a missed opportunity.

Waikeria prison

Waikeria prison Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

The government has finally revealed the future for the prison site, which had hung in limbo when it refused to build the previous government's proposed 2000-3000 bed 'mega prison'.

Instead it's going to build a new 500-bed high-security facility to replace the current one, and a 100-bed specialised unit for prisoners suffering significant mental health issues at a total cost of $750 million.

National Party justice spokesperson Mark Mitchell said he was disappointed.

"In the longer term when you see the predictions, the projections and advice the government has, it's clearly showing they'll need an additional 3000 beds through to 2026. So it doesn't even meet half of what's required," he said.

The current building was built in 1911 and has capacity for 426 prisoners. It was deemed unfit in a report from last year by the Corrections Inspectorate.

The new facilities will be built in Public-Private Partnership, with a goal to have it up by early 2022. It will be run by Corrections.

The capacity for low security prisoners will remain the same, at 380 beds, bringing overall prison muster at the Waikeria site from 806 beds to 980 once the government's new build is complete.

Rodney MP Mark Mitchell makes his announcement that he is running for the role of leader of the National party.

National Party justice spokesperson Mark Mitchell Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Mr Mitchell said the government's refusal to build a bigger prison and its movements towards a softer stance on law and order overall were worrying.

"It's become very clear that they don't have a cohesive plan across the justice sector," he said.

"The only thing they've really been clear about, and it was indicative of this cabinet paper that Andrew Little tried to take through to repeal the three strikes law, is they're going to look at diluting our bail laws.

"Effectively, they're going to look at how they can let people out more quickly from prison, that should be in prison."

Mr Mitchell said he expected New Zealand communities could become less safe.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis told Morning Report the government was increasing capacity by 1500 beds over next 18 months, in addition to the Waikeria beds, and was committed to reducing the prison population by 30 percent over 15 years, to around 7000.

Half of the cells Waikeria will be double-bunked meaning two thirds of the prisoners held will be sharing a cell. Mr Davis said double-bunking was not the situation - but prisons were not meant to be resorts, and the government was trying to do the best it could with the budget available.

"We had to make some concessions and that's one of them."

Former Waikeria prison inmate Mane Adams said double-bunking was dangerous and degrading, and would heighten tension within the prison population.

Mr Adams was incarcerated in Waikeria prison from 2015-2016.

During that time, he was forced into a double-bunking situation, despite raising serious safety concerns.

"Double bunking is overcrowding ... people forced into confined spaces," he said.

"It creates many issues, you know, health issues, deprivation and all that and therefore leads to frustration of inmates, and then that leads to assaults."

Mr Adams said that for him, the double bunking was so humiliating, he ended up making an official request to be give a single cell.

"I'm a private person, so I would do everything and anything... I would use the system's laws against putting me into a cell with someone else, I would put a face on to make myself look angry and push my issue that if you put someone into my cell, it's not very good for that person," he said.

The harsh and cramped conditions imposed by double-bunking was not going to decrease reoffending rates, said Mr Adams.

"You know, harshness in conditions does not deter offending. If anything, encourages it," he said.

Victim advocate Ruth Money said public safety should be paramount.

"I do have a real concern that public safety is not being prioritised, and victims' rights aren't being prioritised," she said.

"What I would like to see is work going in to a strategic justice solution, rather than a band-aid in terms of a prison number here, three strikes abolishment or bail tinkering there."

Both Ms Money and Mr Mitchell like the idea of a specialised mental health unit, which the government said was the first of its kind in New Zealand. But they would both like to know more about exactly what it will be and how it will be run.

"I'd be really keen to understand what that proposal is," Ms Money said.

"I work with a number of families who's offender has been found not guilty by reason of insanity which is just so offensive to a victim ... it can be a really bitter pill to swallow.

"I'm really interested to see how they balance the patient's rights, but also with some kind of deterrent punishment aspect as well as obviously trying to make sure these people are well and don't reoffend."

Advocacy group People Against Prisons Aoteoroa spokesperson Emilie Rakete said the issue was "one of over-incarceration, not a lack of prison capacity" and that building more prisons would not deal with the problem that too many people were being jailed.

She said the Bail Amendment Act should be immediately repealed.

"We could repeal [it] right now and release nearly 2000 prisoners who by all accounts do not pose any threat to communities," she said.

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