7 May 2024

Prison spending: Waikeria to have capacity for nearly 2000 beds

11:08 pm on 7 May 2024
Waikeria prison

Inside Waikeria prison. (file image) Photo: RNZ/ Nick Monro

Waikeria Prison will eventually have the capacity for 1865 beds, the government has clarified after a series of maths gaffes.

On Monday, Prime Minister Christopher Luxon announced a $1.9 billion investment in Corrections over the next four years. Of that $442m was a reinvestment, from cuts in back-office jobs and some fixed-term contracts.

It will go towards more prison beds - an 810-bed extension at Waikeria Prison - more prison officers and rehabilitation for remand inmates.

That will be in addition to the 600 beds already under construction following funding by the Labour government.

Waikeria Prison's current capacity is 455.

Luxon told Morning Report on Tuesday the facts on the prison spending were straightforward.

"There's 455 beds today, there's 600 going in next year and there's another 810 coming with this funding."

Luxon denied the announcement was rushed.

The coalition would spend $78 million to extend rehabilitation programmes for remand prisoners, "which, in New Zealand is 45 percent of our prison population at the moment", Luxon said.

In a statement, Corrections Minister Mark Mitchell said the funding would lead to 685 new frontline corrections staff, including 470 corrections officers.

"We're investing in pay increases for those staff so corrections can continue to attract, retain and train staff."

The Waikeria Prison build has been pushed back repeatedly. It will not house prisoners until 2025.

The redevelopment project was first announced in 2018 by then-minister of corrections Kelvin Davis and was originally set to be finished by early 2022.

It promised a 500-bed high-security prison, and an additional 100 beds in a dedicated mental health and addiction facility. It was meant to replace the current one, which is over 100 years old.

Waikeria was the site of New Zealand's biggest prison riot over the 2020-21 new year period - 17 inmates burned a high-security unit to the ground, in protest over "inhumane" conditions. The riot amassed more than $50 million in damages.

The project site is 21 hectares and includes 1.7km of secure perimeter fencing. The site was prepared for construction from late 2018 and piling began in May 2019. The new facilities are being developed next to the prison's existing accommodation units.

It came after National's plans to build a 2000-3000-bed 'mega prison' at Waikeria were scrapped by Labour.

Waikeria Prison expansion to put pressure on local infrastructure

But plans to super-size the rural Waikato prison could put a strain on local infrastructure including housing, access to GPs and schools.

Property Brokers Te Awamutu branch manager Rebecca Fraser said between Te Kuiti and Te Awamutu the company had about 200 rentals, but only four were vacant.

She told Checkpoint there was a huge demand for rentals, but there were houses to buy.

"We're currently in the buyer's market and there's an oversupply of homes for sale.

However, it would be a struggle for people to get rental accommodation, she said.

But with law changes around bright line test, she said more investors could be entering the market there.

"We also may see the opposite. With bright line rules reducing the time frame, we may see people wanting to sell their rental portfolios."

A three-bedroom rental in a new build costs about $680, but in an older home, it is $550 to $600 a week.

"There's such a high demand. You get a lot of people thinking that the higher the rent, the better quality the tenant, but that's not always the case."

She said working families could not afford these rents, especially if they were on one income with a young family.

A prison officer's starting salary is $65,000.

But the issues go beyond accommodation.

The average wait to see a GP for a non-urgent visit was three weeks, she said.

And rural schools were seeing a shrinking in green spaces to accommodate more classrooms.

"We definitely need some more infrastructure and that's an ongoing debate with council."

She said fewer people were moving to the area than expected - home consents were down 37 percent in two years.

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