OnPoint by Keith Ng


What gorilla?

While his lovely assistant Judith Collins paraded in front of you in her sparkly leotard swinging shipping containers, John Key has just said, right to your face, 'we're going to spend $385m on prisons in the middle of a recession, and we want to spend $380,000 on each prisoner because this is where our spending priorities are.'

Dude. You've been gorilla'd.*

Here's the pattern. National offers up a novel-yet-slightly-controversial-in-a-newsworthy-way way of cutting government spending. The usual punters leap at the bait. News media jumps all over it, incisively and impartially getting to the bottom of the trivial distraction, and completely misses the massive spending.

Isn't the real story here that National is spending $385m from its “stimulus package” on the least productive spending imaginable, housing a disproportionately high and ever-rising prison population?

No? How about something more Garth McVicar, then: $380,000 per bed? It's another sign of the government putting these scum first, pampering them with reinforced walls and indoor plumbing while their victims are outside, completely without steel bars and razor wire! None at all! Raar!


To the guy/gal who thought this up: Well done, have a slow clap.

Clap. Clap. Clap.

The shipping containers are not a big deal. There's nothing inherently inhumane about corrugated weathering steel, it's just a construction material. Then again, there's nothing inherently spartan about them either.

So how can they save so much money? They can't. The $643,000 vs $380,000 figures are rigged.

The Spring Hill Corrections Facility (where the $643,000 figure came from) was built in the middle of a national construction boom and global spike in the price of oil and steel. That's the excuse that Corrections gave for going massively over-budget:

The difference in budget for these two [Spring Hill and Otago Corrections Facility] facilities has resulted from three main factors:

The extreme pressures of the current boom in construction, which are common across the overall New Zealand construction sector at this time, combined with other external market factors, which are impacting the cost of labour, materials and commodities such as fuel. These pressures are especially marked in the Auckland and Otago regions, where the facilities are located.”

If it had gone within budget... (crazy assumption, I know, but since we are comparing hypothetical prison beds with hypothetical prison beds, it's just as crazy to assume that the shipping container prison will be within budget)... if Spring Hill had gone within budget, it would have cost around $435,000 “per bed”.**

This is why Collins never gave a costing for what conventional construction would cost *now*. She is comparing the cost of a real prison rushed through a building boom with the cost of a hypothetical prison in the middle of a recession. Of course there's a bloody big difference.

So, that brings the savings back down to $55,000 “per bed”. Good. Great. If it checks out, by all means do it, but:

The average cost of keeping an offender in prison is currently $90,746 per year, which is lower than that of comparable countries, despite including depreciation which is not costed in many countries. The average annual cost of managing an offender on a community sentence is $3665, ranging from $2,000 for community work to $25,000 for Home Detention.”

Saving $55,000 is not very much when that prison bed will cost you $90,746 every single year. That's the gorilla in the room, right there.

* The older (original?) version of the experiment featured a gorilla, rather than a moonwalking bear. I'm on the fence about which one is awesomer.

** “Cost per bed” had nothing to do with beds, or cells. It's just the total cost of the prison divided by the prisoners it's designed to hold. It's convenient to say “cost per bed” because it sounds like it's a $600,000 bed, but only a small portion of that is spent on the prisoners' actual living arrangements. The rest is on training and rehab facilities, and amenities like walls and fences and razor wire.

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