The Government has announced that two old prisons will close – Wellington’s Mount Crawford Prison (which holds 120 prisoners) and the New Plymouth prison (which holds 112). That’s a total of 225 prison beds that will go – permanently. And about time too – those places are pre-historic. However, the closures are being used to justify building a new prison at Wiri which will house 960 prisoners. 960 new places to replace 225 old ones. That’s ridiculous – there are already 1,200 empty prison beds across the country. Once the new Wiri prison is built there will be 2,000 empty beds. This just doesn’t make sense. Mount Crawford, New Plymouth, Arohata and Rolleston hold 700 prisoners between them. They could all be closed tomorrow and there would still be spare capacity.
Instead, the Government announced that some units in Arohata, Rolleston, Rangipo and Waikeria prisons will also close. Does adding (or subtracting) a few units from the equation justify a new prison? Not really. Units which close can be opened again. Mount Crawford closed for 12 months between June 2008 and July 2009 but reopened when the prison muster went through the roof. So unless these old units are torn down, they’re not really closing at all. The Government is just hedging its bets with a dollar both ways – actually $900 million – which is the anticipated cost of the new prison. This is what punters do when they don’t know which way to go.
The lack of direction
Corrections Minister Anne Tolley and chief executive Ray Smith should be providing direction. But they seem really confused. In an attempt to justify the closures, Mr Smith said: “Every attempt would be made to ensure as many inmates as possible were housed in prisons near to their families.” He must be joking. The Department makes very little effort to place prisoners near their families. It’s closing two small prisons which actually enable prisoners to be near their families and moving them into mega prisons away from their families. Corrections moves prisoners around for all sorts of reasons. It moves them away when rehabilitation programmes it wants to put them into aren’t available in the local prison. It also moves them away from their families when the local prison is full – which it usually is. The Department moves prisoners around for whatever reason it chooses and in 2011 spent over $1 million transferring prisoners from once place to another.
Mr Smith’s vision has been clouded by the Department’s overpaid policy analysts and spin doctors. He went on to say: “The changes … will give Corrections a strong platform from which to target re-offending rates.” Yeah right! In 2000, the Department introduced “Integrated Offender Management” (IOM) system which was described at the time as “the biggest single initiative the department has undertaken to reduce reoffending”. It made no difference whatsoever. Canterbury University criminologist Dr Greg Newbold described it as “Another wreck on the scrapheap of abandoned fads of criminal rehabilitation.”
In 2006 the Department dropped a rehabilitation programme called Straight Thinking after an evaluation found it increased reoffending rather than reducing it – after putting over 10,000 offenders through it. In 2008, the Department introduced a new programme called the MIRP – or Medium Intensity Rehabilitation Programme. This is described on the Department’s website as: “A generic programme to teach offenders how to alter the thoughts, attitudes and behaviours that led to their offending and assist them to develop strategies for maintaining any positive changes made”. More prisoners now do the MIRP than any other rehabilitation programme. The problem is – it doesn’t work either. Corrections recently discovered it doesn’t reduce re-offending at all. They just haven’t told anyone yet.
Because these programmes don’t work, over 50% of those released from prison are back inside within five years. The reality is that nothing the Department has ever done has changed these figures. It makes no difference whether the prisons are old, new, small or large. These stats remain the same.
In the meantime, Finance Minister Bill English says the Government is facing the biggest deficit in its history. Thousands of public servants are being laid off, the gap between rich and poor is growing and more and more Kiwis are leaving the country. These stats are all going up. Meanwhile, crime is on the decline, the prison population is dropping and there are 1,200 empty prison beds. These stats are all going down. But the new prison at Wiri is going ahead anyway – at a cost of $900 million. This just doesn’t add up.