6 Jan 2021

Waikeria inmates' protest: a symptom of a much larger problem

8:38 pm on 6 January 2021

By Alexander Gillespie*

Analysis - There must be an independent inquiry into what happened at Waikeria prison. Aside from the actual incident, the question needs to be answered whether the red-flags that were raised in 2017 and 2019 were taken seriously, or not.

Prison fencing at Paremoremo.

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Although such an inquiry is very important, it would be a mistake to let this be the primary focus of our attention. The riot at Waikeria prison is only a symptom of a much larger problem, which is that parts of the incarceration system are failing at multiple points.

Safety for Staff: There are some 10,000 workers located in over 151 sites and 18 prisons across the country, often having to deal with some very challenging inmates. Not counting the disturbing problems such spitting at staff (especially during the worst parts of the Covid period) there were 18 serious assaults on Corrections staff during the 2019-2020 period.

Poor Conditions for Inmates: Aside a few bright spots, overall, the Ombudsman has recorded many prison facilities are no longer fit-for-purpose, but continue to be used due to the high prison population. Further generic problems include the complaints system and low provision of kaupapa Māori programmes and practices in prisons.

Numbers: On a comparative per-capita basis, our incarceration rate is high. At the turn of the 21st century, we had 5720 people in prison. Two decades later, multiple governments have allowed this to grow. Today we have 9078 people incarcerated (down from a peak of 10,364 in 2018). Each one of these people costs, on average, about $100,000 per year to be kept locked up. Despite the current dip in numbers, projections are that they will increase to about 11,400 by the middle of 2029.

Congestion: Some 38 percent of all prisoners already have to share a cell (down from about 43 percent in 2018), but remand prisoners make up a lot of the sharing. For those actually sentenced, it is about 27 percent having to share (down from 34 percent in 2018).

Constituents and Trends: The detained are mostly male (93.6 percent), disproportionately Māori (52.9 percent, while European are 30.5 percent and Pacific 11.5 percent). Those sentenced, with gang affiliations have more than doubled from 17 percent in 2010.

Recidivism: New Zealand has stubbornly persistent rates of up to 60 percent of prison inmates re-offending within two years of being released from jail.

To advance from this position we need change. In so doing, we need to be realistic in our thinking.

Society will never reach a point where there are no serious crimes which need punishment, and convicts, locked away, at least for a period.

In terms of the current group of prisoners in New Zealand, 41.3 percent are doing time for violence related offences, 20.5 percent for sexual offences, 10.4 percent for burglary, and 10.1 percent for drugs.

Part of being realistic is accepting the need, however undesirable, of prisons.

Within the western lineage, prisons as a type of penalty can be traced to antiquity.

Before this point, punishment was more personal, with an eye for an eye, in which revenge and retribution minimised the need for state based intervention. After this point, as justice became more refined and depersonalised, there were prisons, prisoners - and for the first 2000 years, often horrific penalties and standards.

Looking forward, the only real questions are how many prisoners there will be, how they will be treated, and whether society will be made safer (or not) by our management of them. To proceed on this path, a few basic issues must be addressed.

First, Corrections staff, who carry the tasks of keeping society safe, and trying to turn criminals into good citizens, must be highly valued and protected. The health and safety of these people must be continually checked, evaluated, improved and their labour and skills, fairly remunerated.

Second, we must continually aim to improve and enforce standards that help inmates. This is an ongoing process.

New Zealand had been legislating for prisons since 1846. Today, punishments like 'hard labour', the death penalty, flogging and whipping are historical footnotes, as are the ideas that differences in age or mental illness do not matter when locking people up.

Today, driven by international standards our own Corrections Act represents a large step forward. This law explains that the purpose of the correction system is to improve public safety (which is the paramount consideration) and 'contribute to the maintenance of a just society' by ensuring sentences are administered in 'a safe, secure, humane, and effective manner' and assist, 'in the rehabilitation of offenders and their reintegration into the community' when possible. Great detail is then set out on all aspects of prison management. Some of these entitlements improve easily over time, such as today's rule that drinking water, 'must be made available to every prisoner whenever he or she needs it'.

Other entitlements, such as for some prisoners to be able to vote in elections become political battlegrounds.

The goal here should not be for radical change, but rather, ensuring that the existing standards are respected and advanced incrementally. As a rule, this is already the case. For example, of 125 recommendations that the Ombudsman made last year in his quest to improve the conditions and treatment of people in detention, 90 (72 percent) were accepted or partially accepted. If further progress is desired, the powers and resources of the Ombudsman in this area should be expanded, and the areas where progress is not made should be highlighted and brought to the forefront of public and political attention.

Third, problem trends must be prioritised. This means enhanced effort, support and resources must be dedicated to prevent the growing power and influence of gangs in jail.

Focus should also be applied to reducing the numbers on remand spending unnecessary time in jail.

Of the current group of inmates, 3244 are on remand. Without change, by 2029, the expectation is over 50 percent of the prison population will be people on remand.

Next, a very strong emphasis must be placed upon Māori. While the new Hōkai Rangi strategy looks promising, unwavering and sustained commitment is critical to ensure it is given the best possible chances to succeed.

Finally, the resources and support on either side of the prison equation need to be deepened. It is wiser to spend money upfront, putting resources into social inclusion, crime prevention, early intervention (identifying and mitigating risk), and then a smarter approach to rehabilitation and subsequent social inclusion for those exiting the criminal justice system, to break the cycle and possible recidivism.

*Alexander Gillespie is a Professor of Law at the University of Waikato.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs