The Government has just given the go ahead to Corrections to build a new 960 bed prison at Wiri – to be run by Serco. The prison is expected to cost over $400 million to build with another $500 million in operating costs. In other words, nearly $1 billion of taxpayers’ money is going to be spent at a time when the government is facing the biggest deficit in its financial history and public servants are being laid off left, right and centre. The chief executives of the 30-plus departments and ministries who have head offices in Wellington are under huge pressure to produce what the Treasury calls “efficiency dividends”. Even the police are not exempt and have been told to save $350 million in the next three years.
But financial restictions don’t seem to apply to the Corrections Department. New Zealand has built five new prisons in the last ten years – four under the previous Labour Government and one under National – the new Mt Eden prison also run by Serco. Corrections is about to become the biggest Department in the country and the bill to the New Zealand taxpayer for locking all these people up has more than doubled since 2004-05.
But in 2011, for the first time ever, the Justice Sector forecasts indicated that crime was on the decline and the prison population was beginning to drop. The forecasts show the prison population should drop by 3000 by the time the new Wiri prison is complete in 2015. In other words, New Zealand doesn’t need a new prison.
But Governments like building prisons – just in case they decide to be ‘tough on crime’. So they need to make up excuses – well lies really. One of the justifications given for the new prison by Corrections Minister Anne Tolley is that it will allow the Department to close down Mount Crawford prison in Wellington. This makes no sense whatsoever. Mount Crawford has only 120 prisoners – while the new prison at Wiri will hold 960. Because of the declining prison population, Mount Crawford could be closed right now without the need for another prison to be built.
The other justification given by the Government is that the new prison will be run by Serco who will run it more efficiently than the Corrections Department. That doesn’t seem likely. They’ve just been fined $150,000 because a prisoner escaped. They will also be fined if they fail to reduce reoffending by 10% more than the Corrections Department prisons. Good luck with that.
And let’s not forget that Serco runs the Federal Detention Centre for asylum seekers on Easter Island and has an international record of abusing prisoners even forcing them to sleep in toilets. New Zealand prisoners also sleep in the toilets – but do we really want to fork out $900 milion so that Serco can be more efficient at abusing New Zealand prisoners than the Corrections Department.
The $900 million could be better spent on early intervention programs, funding drug courts, extending addiction treatment in the community and building a system of halfway houses to support inmates leaving prison. But it won’t be. It’ll be spent on the new prison. Who said crime doesn’t pay? It certainly does. If I was a public servant in some other government department and had just lost my job, I’d feel seriously aggrieved.