Blog | The Growing Problem of Prisons in New Zealand

Blog | The Growing Problem of Prisons in New Zealand

By Nancy Chen

The Government has finally decided on the future of New Zealand’s oldest prison, Waikeria, with Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis announcing yesterday that a small prison will replace the current facilities.[1] This comes on the back of problems and proposals surrounding Waikeria after a report detailing its deteriorating condition was released last year. Past governments have had different approaches to Waikeria, reflective of their overall attitude to prisons and sentencing in New Zealand. Whilst these policies have various merits and shortcomings, the problems that surround our current criminal justice system require more than increasing prison capacity. Short-term and long-term solutions are required to address the worsening prison system in New Zealand.

Waikeria and the New Zealand Prison System

A report by Chief Inspector of Corrections Janis Adair found that some facilities at Waikeria Prison were in a very bad condition, with four out of nine units closing in 2012. There were a range of issues such as overcrowding, low-security inmates being held in a more restrictive environment in units with high-security prisoners, strip search areas being visible from neighbouring offices as well as at-risk prisoners being kept in their cells up to 22 hours a day.[2] Although the Department of Corrections announced its plans to close the remaining units in 2015, a rising prison population meant that Waikeria stayed open.

The original proposal for Waikeria was a response to the rising number of inmates as well as the deteriorating state of the prison itself. The number of people imprisoned in New Zealand has increased steadily since 1985, exceeding 10,000 for the first time in 2016. More recently, there has been a significant increase in the remand population, reflecting an increase in serious crimes and changes in legislation. New Zealand’s prison population is one of the highest in the OECD, with 220 out of every 100,000 Kiwis behind bars.[3] Prison costs have also risen over the past thirty years to exceed any other area of government spending, yet crime rates have been at its lowest since the late 1970s.[4]


What is the Government proposing?

The new high security prison will house 500 people, half of which will share a cell with double bunk beds. The low-security prison will have the same capacity as before, with the addition of a mental health facility that holds up to 100 extra people. Overall, the prison capacity will increase from 806 to 980. Davis has said that this approach reflects a new direction for prisons in New Zealand, one which puts “public safety first while delivering real rehabilitation and mental health support to reduce reoffending”.[5] Recently announced justice reforms aim to make it easier for those accused to get bail, as well as put convicted people on home detention if their sentences are less than two years.[6] The Labour-led Government has been vocal in its opposition to building Waikeria Prison under the National Party’s proposal. The Government has instead promised to reduce the prison population by 30% over 15 years through a range of criminal justice and crime prevention measures. Davis argues that the solution to a rising prison population is not to lock more people up. That approach is expensive for the taxpayer and fails to address the underlying causes of offending.

This is notably different from the National Party’s approach. Opposition Leader Simon Bridges has stated that only serious and repeat offenders are locked up, and they should continue to be — building a larger prison is the only way to make communities safe.[7] Justice spokesperson for the National Party, Mark Mitchell, also expressed his disappointment in the Waikeria decision:[8]

The reality is 98 per cent of people in our prisons are there for Category 3 and Category 4 crimes. These are offences punishable by a prison sentence of two years or more, like murder, sexual violence and serious assault.

Mitchell argues that current projections show 3000 more beds will be required by 2026, so the Government’s proposal “doesn’t even meet half of what’s required”.[9] The National Party attributed this to the Government’s worryingly “softer” stance on crime.[10] They assert that the Government lacks a unified plan for the justice sector, and that this may have the effect of decreasing public safety.[11]

Crime and Politics

Policy responses by successive governments have long been labelled as either “soft” or “tough” on law and order, Crime rates can be explained through the cumulative impact of policy decisions over time. These decisions are often in response to public demand and political positioning.[12] The process of penal populism sees political parties compete with each other to be seen as “tough on crime”, leading to an increase in the number of prisoners held in remand prior to sentencing and the imposition of longer sentences.[13] Successive governments have engaged in this process. As such, no single government is to blame for the increasing incarceration rates. However, the influence of government policy cannot be downplayed.

Hands of the prisoner on a steel lattice close up

In 2010, New Zealand passed a three-strikes law that followed California’s notorious three-strikes initiative.[14] Officially known as the Sentencing and Parole Reform Act 2010, the legislation identified 40 qualifying offences, including all major violent and sexual offences and established an incremental three-stage system of warnings.[15] Although more limited in scope than its American counterpart, the law still has the effect of increasing sentence length and restricting judicial discretion.[16] The call for a repeal of three strikes by Justice Minister Andrew Little was recently halted after NZ First indicated that they would be unlikely to support it.[17] The repeal would have allowed more offenders to serve sentences in the community rather than behind bars.[18] The cost of incarceration per prisoner is estimated to be around $100,000 a year, and by increasing the mean sentence length for second and third strikes, the costs as well as the prison population will continue to increase.[19] New Zealand First’s Law and Order spokesperson Darroch Ball agreed with the need for legislative changes to “prevent the moral failure and fiscal burden of an ever-growing prison muster”, but argued that ‘three strikes’ was not the answer to a reform effort.[20] Little has stated that “[f]urther work on a balanced reform package for a more effective criminal justice system … will be considered by the independent advisory panel to be appointed shortly”.[21]

Incarceration rates must be viewed independently of crime rates – prison population is a direct result of policy that sets out who goes to prison and for how long.[22] The high rate of imprisonment reflects New Zealand’s position on criminal justice, which has long been more retributive rather than restorative. Aspects of the criminal justice system, such as remand and sentencing, are continuously influenced by political and media debate. Part of the recent growth in the prison population can also be attributed to stricter parole laws, often developed in response media-driven high-profile events.[23] An example of this is the law changes surrounding bail, which reversed the burden of proof for accused offenders seeking bail leading to more people being refused. The reforms coincided with a highly-publicised campaign led by victims’ families called “Christie’s Law”, which demanded tougher bail laws.

Punitive or Rehabilitative?

Despite these policy changes, the deterrent effect of harsher sentences is yet to be seen as imprisonment rates continue to rise. As of 31 December 2017, 10,394 people have been incarcerated, while 2,951 of those are remand prisoners.[24] A recent report released by the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Peter Gluckman finds that offending could be better combated by investing in interventions rather than new prison infrastructure.[25] There is a strong body of evidence to suggest that the “criminogenic” effect of prisons are extremely disruptive, damaging job prospects, relationships and creating expensive training grounds for further offending by inmates.[26] Beyond that, prisoners also face higher rates of undiagnosed mental illness and addictions. The increasing rate of recidivism is another major concern. An estimated 29% of released prisoners will find themselves back in prison within five years, costing the Department of Corrections approximately $650 million.[27]


So Where to From Here?

While the expansion of Waikeria and the installation of a mental health facility within its grounds serves as a short-term solution, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has made it clear that her government is opposed to large-scale prisons and is trying to change the punitive wheels on which our prison system currently turns. The rising prison population is indicative of a larger problem in New Zealand’s criminal justice system. Funding has long been invested in those already in the criminal justice system, instead of preventing people from entering it in the first place. Ardern is clear on this point:[28]

We are as a Government committed to making our country and communities safer by reforming the criminal justice system with a focus on rehabilitation and stopping people from entering a life of crime.

As the Government moves to invest in all stages of the criminal justice process, there is hope that intervention and prevention programmes coupled with evidence-based policymaking will be able to transform the justice system and reduce the prison population while keeping New Zealand safe.





[3] OECD. Society at a Glance 2016. Retrieved from 2016. 2 Department of Corrections. Retrieved from _2017.pdf; 2017.







[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.


[13] Pratt, J. “Penal Populism in New Zealand.” Punishment & Society 7, no. 3 (07.2005): 303-22.

[14] Brookbanks, W. J. (2012). Punishing recidivist offenders in New Zealand using three strikes legislation: Sound policy or penal excess? US-China Law Review, 9, 1–19.


[16] Ref p 283 Oleson. Habitual criminal legislation in New Zealand: three years of three strikes






[22] Schrantz D. Strategies for reducing prison populations. The Prison Journal 2011; 91(3): 138S-159S

[23] Jeffries S, Stenning P. Sentencing, aboriginal offenders: law, policy, and practice in three countries. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 2014; 56(4): 447-494.



[26] Aizer A, Doyle Jr JJ. Juvenile incarceration, human capital, and future crime: Evidence from randomly assigned judges. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 2015; 130(2):759-803.



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The Public Policy Club is a non-partisan club at the University of Auckland that aims to encourage, educate and involve students from all backgrounds in the education and development of political knowledge. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PPC.

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