Heather Roy

15 May 2018

If I was the Minister of Corrections …

Budget 2018 announcements are coming thick and fast ahead of the new Government’s first budget this week (17 May). No new funding announcements have been made so far for Corrections to help relieve the dire shortage of prison beds, with most at or near capacity.

The New Zealand Prison muster has reached around 10,500. Since 2013 the muster has increased almost 20 percent and it has tripled since 1987. The change of the bail laws in 2013 and repeated offending by people with alcohol and drug dependency is largely responsible for the spike in prison numbers.

There are record numbers of people on remand and this is taking its toll on the Corrections Infrastructure. Although there is much talk about building new prisons, this must be done in a planned rather than knee jerk manner. It is time we took a long hard look at why there aren’t enough prison beds, and how to best deal with the problem. Trying to prevent repeat offending would be a good start.

There are no easy solutions but something needs to be done. Either we send fewer people to prison or we accept that solutions cost money and dedicate public funds to rehabilitating people well. Just building more prisons for the sake of it isn’t a solution but a perpetuation of the current problem.

If I was the Corrections Minister I would want to be making the following announcement on Budget day:

Government announces the establishment of New Zealand’s first Rehabilitation Prison to be built and run from 2021.

This would signal a new way of dealing with some of the most frequent repeat offenders – the mentally ill and those with drug and alcohol dependency.

Too many of those in our prisons suffer from a mental illness, a drug or alcohol addiction and some with all of these problems. Their criminal activity is frequently a by-product of their significant health issues. It is hard to get concrete data but it is thought that 15% is a conservative estimate of those in prison with a mental illness, often untreated. The Corrections website states “Drug and alcohol abuse is a major driver of crime. Two-thirds of New Zealand prisoners have substance abuse problems and more than 50% of crime is committed by people under the influence of drugs and alcohol.”

Corrections has, over the past few years, done a better job of providing rehabilitation for those with substance abuse, but there is plenty of scope for improvement yet.

If the government is committed to reducing the prison population by 30 percent in 15 years then something dramatic needs to happen. Something much more dramatic than just building more prisons. There needs to be a significant change in how we view incarceration.

I would build a new prison that caters just for those with mental illness and substance abuse. This would be a 500 bed rehabilitation prison. It would be built by Corrections, and staffed by Corrections and health professionals responsible for designing programmes for inmates that were specifically aimed at making them well and reintegrating them into the community at the end of their sentence.

I’d have an assessment unit of 30 short term beds that judges could send people to. My prison would have a 170 bed mental health unit and the remaining 300 beds would be for those with drug and alcohol dependencies. I would consider this a trial (for three years) and appoint a joint Corrections and Health evaluation team to follow the progress of inmates while in prison and after they are released.

The argument used to stop such ideas is usually funding. As a Corrections facility, the building costs should be met by Corrections but with the necessary Budget 2018 allocation (perhaps around $350 million). The running of the prison should be met by Corrections too – it is a prison after all. But the treatment and rehabilitation staff and programmes should be met by the health budget as recognition that these are health related issues and solutions. All funding should be new and allocated over 4 years. If the government can spend $1 billion boosting foreign affairs initiatives we should be able to allocate half that much to ease an imminent domestic crisis.

If the Rehabilitation Prison model was shown to be effective, some existing prisons could be converted in future to treat and rehabilitate more prisoners.

We know that when people are treated promptly and properly they can function well in society. The individual benefits, their families benefit and their communities are better places in which to live. Building more prisons and ignoring the needs of prisoners is a poor long term strategy but building a new hospital prison to make people well is a short term investment for a long term solution.