OnPoint by Keith Ng


Manufacturing Dissent

Doesn't anyone else get suspicious when a Minister jumps out, on her own initiative, and declares that her portfolio is in crisis?

We now have more prisoners behind bars than at any other time in New Zealand's history," Ms Judith 'Crusher' Collins said. “At Monday unlock this week - where prisoners throughout the country are counted - there were 8509 people in prisons or police stations, which is 16 prisoners more than the previous peak of 8493 prisoners on 7 September 2009.”

Honestly, what kind of journalist would believe that she said it because “the public has a right to know”? Because if that was the case, then the public might also have a right to know that there'll be even more prisoners next week. And even more the week after that.

It's called an upward trend – and it's predicted to go up, and up, and up. Whether it's next Thursday, 8th February 2011 or the end of the Mayan calendar – pick any day, and we'll probably have “more prisoners behind bars than at any other time in New Zealand's history”. (Except for Christmas, when the prison muster is at its annual low.)

Sure, there's a serious capacity shortfall that's only going to get worse. It's a problem that needs to be dealt with, but have we really suddenly hit a “crisis point”?

None of this is new. A cabinet paper prepared by Collins' office in January stated pretty clearly: “The first new prison capacity is required in late 2009/early 2010.” It stated pretty clearly that in the short-term, that capacity has to come from double-bunking. It also stated that union agreement was required to allow the additional double-bunking to proceed. Then, in the Budget, they got $364.4m to do it. That's right: $364.4m specifically for double-bunking.

So, let's get this straight. Collins knew about the problem, got solutions to the problem, approved those solutions, then got the money to pay for those solutions. And yet, here we are, with talk of highest prisoner numbers ever, imminent capacity crisis of dooom, suggestions that troops might be called in, oh and, by the way, privatisation.

Of the money Corrections got in the Budget for double-bunking, $218.6m was operating funding. And yet, here we are, with Corrections saying that they have no money to pay corrections staff more, blaming them for holding up double-bunking, and floating privatisation and mass sackings as a solution – as if cramming more prisoners in the same space was a great opportunity to train up fresh staff on lower pay under new management.

It's not a stretch to suggest that they're just manufacturing a crisis. The formula is pretty simple:

'Prisons in crisis! We'll have to stick them in containers! We'll have to send in the troops! We'll have to stick them in police vans! We'll have to send them out onto the streets! We'll have to keep them in your children's room!

Or, I guess, if you really pushed us – because we totally didn't come into office wanting to do it – but if you left us with no other choice, I guess we could privatise the prisons. I mean, that does sound like a better option than keeping violent offenders in your children's room, doesn't it?'

I don't know if private prisons are a good idea or not. I don't know much about prisons. I didn't even watch Prison Break (that tattoo was retarded). But I suspect that the push for privatising prisons, however cynical the methods, isn't just about ideology. It's about reducing the cost of a tsunami that coming right for us.

It comes down to the opposite of what Collins said. We shouldn't be worried that prisoners numbers are as high as they are now – we should be worried that they'll never be this low again. According to the current forecasts, the prison population will grow from 8,500 now to 12,500 by 2018.

It'll cost $1.8 billion over the next ten years to build the prisons required to house these people. It'll cost $1.9 billion to operate these prisons over the same period.

Yeah. That's right. Billions.

This is what the Treasury had to say about our prison population (emphasis added):

This paper signals the need for $1.795 billion capital in Budgets 2009, 2010, 2011, of which $19 million is for growth in CPPS (Community Probation and Psychological Services) capacity and $1.776 billion is for the construction of prison beds. This is greater than 40% of the allowance for new capital spending for these three budgets. This will significantly constrain the Government's ability to put new spending into productive infrastructure.

Furthermore, building this many beds will result in an annual operating increase of $400 million per annum by 2018, and require 2500-2700 additional full-time equivalent employees.”

Instead of building hospitals, schools and cycleways, we may have to spend 40% of our capital spending allowance on prisons.

It makes me hurl.

The real debate shouldn't be about whether it's $1.8b worth of prisons or $1.6b, whether they're cargo containers or reinforced concrete, private or public: It should be about why we have such an high prison population in the first place.

Really? Or am I just being a candy-assed liberal? I'll leave you with this other gem from the Treasury:

New Zealand's current imprisonment rate is 185 per 100,000 people, which is the 4th highest in the OECD. The prison population forecast in this paper signals that our imprisonment rate will increase to 270 per 100,000 by 2018.”


In case you're wondering (I was, which was why I OIAed all this stuff in the first place), the growth in the prison population isn't National's fault. Well, not the fault of the law and order stuff they campaigned on, anyway.

According to Justice and Corrections estimates:

- The repeal of the Bail Act 2007 is expected to require approximately 170 additional beds by 2018.
- Increasing the aggregate sentence by 20% for all offenders committing offences against children is expected to require approximately 130 additional beds by 2018, and
- Ensuring that repeat serious violent offenders with a sentence of five years or more serve the entirety of their sentence is expected to require approximately 40 additional beds by 2018.

Total: 340 above the original forecast by 2018. About a tenth of the total increase. It's not nothing, but it's not the source of the problem, either.

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