Amicus: Why the Mega-Prison Won't Work

By Valeeria Slaiman

The New Zealand government is on the verge of making a decision that may potentially lead to the further detriment of the criminal justice system. The former National government instigated plans to build a mega prison in Waikato, this being the biggest prison that New Zealand has ever seen, accommodating 3000 inmates. With Labour now in office, it is up to them to decide whether or not to eradicate the plan. A step like this was bound to gain attention from the public. A petition has been signed against the expansion of the prison and academics have written an open letter urging the government to drop the expansion plan. The issue people have with the expansion of the prison is the question of whether, in creating a large-scale prison, New Zealand is embodying a retributive or restorative justice system. What are the consequences of a mega prison?The intention of the mega prison is to respond to the increasing incarceration rate in New Zealand. However, the ratio between the rate of crime and rate of incarceration is somewhat imbalanced. People are being put in prison pre-trial and spend even more time in prison awaiting trials. The open letter addressed the impact the 2013 Bail Amendment Bill made to incarceration rates. The amendment put the onus on the defendant to prove whether he or she should be released on bail. This neglects the individual’s right to a fair trial, it is also breaches our international commitments. The 2002 amendment to the Parole Act prevents early release, so people spend even longer in prison. If these amendments were reversed, this would easily decrease the prison population, making it unnecessary to expand the prison system. The aim of the government should be to keep people out of prison rather than to unnecessarily populate a prison with potentially innocent people just to make sure that beds are filled.The conventional punitive system in place does not seem to be working. New Zealand has reached its highest incarceration rate yet and instead of swtiching to a preventative scheme, the government is planning on expanding the Waikeria prison. It seems as though the government is attempting to accommodate crime. A larger prison will only further entrench the punitive/retributive system that New Zealand has apparently been trying to redirect from. The government have failed to take into consideration international practice in reducing the incarceration rate. Scandinavia and Norway are prime examples of effective smaller-scale prisons that prove the beneficial outcome of a restorative justice system.A restorative/rehabilitative system works in smaller-scale prisons, as it would be easier to run and focusses on the prisoner’s development. The only problem people tend to have with a restorative justice system is the fact that it does not “punish” the guilty. However, restorative justice has been proven to reduce crime and incarceration rates. The system functioning in Norway focuses more on fixing the harm caused by the crime than punishing. After the prisoner completes their sentence, Norway focuses on ensuring that they return as a functioning member in society. This ensuring that the offender will not re-offend and return to prison. 80% of the people released from prison in Norway are not re-incarcerated, demonstrating the efficiency of a rehabilitative prison system.The open letter written by the academics also makes reference to the position of Scandinavia. “In Scandinavia, capacity is typically 50 and 100 people.” A large-scale prison allows for corrupt activities to seep through the cracks. It will inevitably heighten prison culture, as a large population of prisoners will be harder to maintain and will necessitate harsher use of force by staff. The prisoners will already be isolated from family and a their support system, in effect inhibiting their rehabilitation process, and the constant fear for safety could consequentially cause mental health detriment that will hinder reintegration. It will be harder for these offenders to re-enter society after they have completed their sentence.The larger-scale prison also has the capability to further entrench existing inequalities. Jacinda Ardern may undermine her credibility if she were to follow through with the expansion plan. In the Prime Minister’s Waitangi Day speech, she had stated that “so long as [the disproportionate incarceration of Māori and non-Māori] exists we have failed in our partnership.” Māori make up 50% of the male prison population and 62% of the women prison population. The mega prison will soon accommodate more Māori men and women, therefore further increasing the disparity between Māori and Pākehā. The inequalities that are embedded in the justice system are the result of socio-economic inequalities. If the Government were more focused on the socio-economic disparity between Māori and Pākehā, I submit that the Maori incarceration rate would fall.Ultimately, I feel I speak on behalf of the majority in saying that we do not want a mega prison. The $1 billion that is supposedly going towards the expansion of the prison could be focused on a more preventative scheme. If the government were to follow through with the expansion plan, it would have to detail how exactly this will decrease incarceration rates. A cost-effective means to accommodate the increased rate of incarceration is not a reason to inhibit the rehabilitative process of prisoners.—The views expressed in the posts and comments of this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Equal Justice Project. They should be understood as the personal opinions of the author. 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