Government keeping plans for billion dollar prison close as numbers approach capacity

The government is keeping the possibility of a $1 billion prison build guarded, with the Minister of Corrections saying they are "in a real bind" as the Minister of Justice highlighted the current state of some of New Zealand's prisons. 

Last year, the Labour-led government said they would prefer not to go ahead with the build, after the previous National government announced a plan to add about 3,000 prison beds at a cost of $1 billion to the Waikeria Prison expansion in Waikato.

Minister of Justice Andrew Little joined Marama Davidson from the Green Party and Simon O'Connor of the National Party on TVNZ1's Marae yesterday. 

When asked if National's promised billion dollar prison plan would go ahead, Mr Little said, "Cabinet has yet to make its decision, it'll be on the basis of what Kelvin Davis as Minister of Corrections reccommends".

He said a package developed by himself, Mr Davis and Minister of Police Stuart Nash would look at offending rates, the corrections system, the age of some of the prisons, "and what we need to do to make a more humane prison and corrections system in the long term". 

Mr Little said a decision would be made at the end of March. 

He said challenges in deciding if the prison build would go ahead included prisons that were coming to the end of their economic life, and a criminal justice system that for the last 30 years has focused on "punishment, punishment, punishment, not much on getting people better and fit to return to society". 

The new prison would cost $300 million a year to run.

"The question you've got to ask is, is there a better way to spend money that's going to take people who have offended against society and do something constructive for those who need help, to deal with mental health issues, addictions, depression, anxiety, those who have got literacy problems, numeracy problems," Mr Little said. 

Ms Davidson said the Green Party agreed there was a "far better way to spend money" than to build the prison. "We would absolutely like to see particularly more support for truly evidence-based restorative justice systems that really are about true accountability."

Mr O'Connor called the proposed prison an "unfortunate necessity". 

"We're less than 300 beds off total capacity, so no-one wants more prisoners per se, or more people locked up, but that's the situation at the moment."

He said the change in Bail Law contributed to the rise in prison numbers, and a greater focus on issues such as family violence. 

"We're talking pretty serious stuff here. We're not locking people up for minor offences."

Mr Little disagreed. He said the changes to the Bail Law had added 4000 people to the prison system. 

"People are being remanded now for longer and longer periods of time because the system is jam-packed," Mr Little said. 

Mr Davis joined the discussion, saying the government plans to reduce the prison population by 30 per cent over 15 years. 

"The problem right now is that corrections doesn't have any flexibility... There's no way we can say, look we don't want those people we don't have room."

"We're in a real bind."

He said the current conditions of prisoners needed to be looked at. 

Marae looks at the possibility of 3,000 beds being added to the prison system. Source: Marae