If keeping baddies banged up is the objective, Corrections data suggest prisons work well

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis – we learned this morning – hadn’t seen fresh prison population forecasts when plans to build a mega-prison at Waikeria were scrapped in May.

Never mind that he later issued a clarifying statement.  The key point is that instead of proceeding to build the biggest prison in the country, he announced a small prison to replace the deteriorating jail at Waikeria. It will be a 500-bed high-security facility with a 100-bed specialised unit for prisoners suffering significant mental health issues.

The new forecasts are unlikely to have tempered his thinking. He says mega-prisons don’t work.

The forecasts are contained in a Ministry of Justice report.  They point to New Zealand’s prison population rising to more than 4000 over the next decade.  This would lift the number of inmates to 14,400 by the year 2027.

The number of prisoners being held on remand – those awaiting trial or being held prior to sentencing – is expected to almost double over that period to 5400. The reason: an increase in the length of time people spend waiting for their cases to go to trial.

But the report’s projections don’t account for policy changes and Davis is on a mission to reduce the prison muster.  He has previously said the government aims to reduce the prison population by 30 per cent over 15 years, to around 7000.

Davis told Morning Report today:

“We’re treating [the forecasts] as a warning and we’re doing something about it”.

He also said he had seen the forecasts for the first time only last night.

National Party leader Simon Bridges regarded this as “remarkable” because the report was finalised in November 2017 when the justice sector chief executives approved it

“ … so what’s been going on for the last several months?”

This prompted the release of this ministerial statement, headed Waikeria decision based on 2017 projections:

The decision on the rebuild of Waikeria Prison was made by Cabinet based on the 2017 Justice Sector Projections, Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis said today.

“Simon Bridges is wrong. Ministers have been working off the 2017 projections through all decisions made in relation to Waikeria Prison. These formed the basis of the paper I took to Cabinet in June,” Kelvin Davis said.

The 2017 Justice Sector Projections were publicly released last week.

“My comments this morning were intended to convey that I simply had not read the public version of the report on the projections, which was published last week. Of course I’ve seen dozens of official reports based on the information in the projections,” Kelvin Davis said.

Cabinet papers related to the Waikeria decision are due to be released within the next ten days.

Many fascinating questions are raised by what has transpired.

Among them:  in what way do mega-prisons not work?

Davis is right to say they don’t work if he regards them as “correctional” facilities in which inmates will learn skills to ensure they get good jobs on their release and from which they will emerge as reformed people with a determination never to offend again.

But make no mistake:  prisons work very well when it comes to forcibly confining criminals  and denying them certain freedoms under the authority of the state.

The 2016/17 Department of Corrections Annual Report said the prison population had risen to 10,200, exceeding 10,000 for the first time, during the year.

There are employment opportunities here:  over the year, the department employed over 1000 new frontline staff.

There was only one unnatural death in prison in the 2016/17 year – a suicide.

There were five escapes from escort from approximately 62,500 movements managed in 2016/17.  All five absconders were apprehended and returned to custody.

But no break-outs or escapes were recorded for the third successive year.

So once offenders have been securely banged up behind bars, our prisons seem to be working very well, thank you.

Perhaps Davis should change his portfolio to Minister of Incarceration.  The success rate of his ministerial domain under that title will be greater than if he sticks to being Minister of Corrections.

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