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May 7, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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Waikeria Prison: The Implications of Expansion

Some 800 years ago, Tainui people navigated the waterways from Kawhia to Te Awamutu and made homes in the region known as Waikeria. This land, in the northern King Country, is now filled with dairy farms — and a prison. About 56% of New Zealand’s total prison population is Māori, even though Māori people only make up about 15% of the whole country.

Waikeria Prison is old; it was constructed about 100 years ago.  The Government of New Zealand has been debating either rebuilding or expanding it, potentially adding 3000 beds to a prison that already houses 650 residents. This decision has been postponed several times, but a final verdict on Waikeria is expected soon. Regardless of what the government decides, the conversation has unearthed serious questions about New Zealand’s criminal justice system.

In the midst of the Waikeria debate, a group of Māori speakers, including Julia Whaipooti of JustSpeak, have gone to New York to talk to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues about criminal justice in New Zealand.

Julia kindly invited me into her home for coffee a few weeks ago. Her space features a wall-size open window; the lounge seating is casually oriented around the view. As we spoke her flatmates wandered in and out of the room, adding insight to the conversation while doing their laundry.

Julia has said that Waikeria prison is sitting on Māori land taken by the New Zealand Government under the Public Works Act. The Public Works Act allows the Crown to acquire land to use for public benefit. When we spoke, Julia added that an Act taking land for the public good and then using it to build prisons was a “conscious act of ongoing colonization”. She spoke firmly: “I have just named how wrong that is. Taking Māori land for the benefit of the public, but that public use is to build a prison that will be filled with Māori.”

Liam Martin, a criminology lecturer at Victoria University, feels that the current Labour government does not want to build the new prison, but is feeling trapped. Liam used Kelvin Davis, the first Māori Minister of Corrections, as an example. Davis was “very vocal” as a member of the opposition, but as a Labour minister, he has been quiet on the topic of prison reform. As a Minister, Davis has “really been sucked into this thing of overcrowding,” said Liam. Corrections has been using the line that it just manages the people sent to them, and that right now, there are too many.

Talking about overcrowding may be a political tool, but the problems are real. There are more prisoners than there are spaces to hold them humanely in New Zealand. Liam told a story about the Arohata women’s prison, where “there isn’t a single space for new prisoners, so they’re using the abandoned buildings at the Rimutaka men’s prison and housing women there, in spaces not fit for human habitation”. The space in Rimutaka was repurposed in February 2017, and is now referred to as the Arohata Upper Prison. It has been improved, but the Chief Ombudsman raised concerns about double bunking and small cell sizes in March 2018.

Amending Bail Laws: A Short Term Solution

One of the causes of today’s overcrowding is a 2013 change to bail laws. The legislation followed a highly publicized tragedy, the death of Christie Marceau, a young woman in Auckland who was killed by a man on bail. The young man was later found to be suffering from schizophrenia.

The Sensible Sentencing Trust (SST), an organization that lobbies for tough-on-crime legislation as the best way to protect victims, were part of a high-profile campaign in 2011-2013 to toughen bail laws. Garth McVicar is the founder of the SST, and was recently criticized for a Facebook post applauding a fatal police shooting in Auckland as “one less to clog the prisons!”

Following the lobbying campaign, the 2013 Bail Amendment Act was passed to stop violent offenders from getting out on bail. Among other things, the Act introduced more situations in which the accused has to prove that they deserve bail, instead of the prosecutor having to prove that they do not (guilty until proven innocent). Today, organizations like JustSpeak argue that the law has been overused. The Corrections Department reports that 1 in every 5 prisoners are being held on remand, or before they have received a sentence.

Julia added that some people held in remand are stuck simply because they “don’t have an appropriate address” to be given bail. This is true for the homeless, and also for people who need electronic bracelet monitoring. To qualify for electronic monitoring, you need a long enough lease, adequate utilities, your own bedroom, proximity to shopping centers, and other factors that would surely disqualify a huge number of VUW students, for example.

Julia, Liam, and others have called for further amendments to the Bail Amendment Act instead of new prisons. If the 2013 Act were repealed, it would cut the number of people being held in remand in half.

New Zealand criminal justice researchers came forward with an open letter in February, proposing “a moratorium on all new prison construction”. The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser has argued that “we keep imprisoning more people in response to dogma not data”. Prisons are not working as a space where people can heal, and building more prisons only leads to more prisoners to fill them.

Labour has the goal of reducing the prison population by 30% over 15 years. When we spoke, Julia suggested just buying a motel for excess prisoners to stay in as an affordable short-term solution. This might give the government time to develop a long-term plan. She laughed, adding that “the Waikeria prison expansion wouldn’t happen until 2025 anyways,” so in many ways, emergency motel living would be a much more pragmatic use of taxpayer money than a far-off mega-prison.

The Long Game: Reforming Structurally Racist Institutions

Before we began speaking, Julia asked what my whakapapa was. As a Canadian settler visiting Aotearoa, or a settler twice over, it was clear to me that my understanding of the impact of prisons here or anywhere would only ever be intellectual at best. I have only ever experienced the benefits of structurally racist systems. I volunteered in a Canadian women’s prison when I was in my first two years of college, and met a huge number of Indigenous women there. I was always the white volunteer with library books, board games, and the power to walk right out the door. Now, I am the person with the opportunity to write about issues I won’t ever feel the consequences of.

Moana Jackson, a Māori activist and lawyer, has been saying that prisons are structurally racist systems since his 1987 work on Māori in the criminal justice system. In a recent interview with RadioNZ, Mr. Jackson held that “the evidence is clear that [a new prison] will incarcerate even more Māori, in fact one predicted estimate is that a 3000 bed prison will ultimately, in the next 30 years, lead to nearly 80 000 more Māori prison sentences. That is simply unacceptable”.

The interviewer interrupted him several times to ask what he would do “if we had no prisons at all”. You could hear Jackson growing frustrated, asking to simply be given the space and time to answer the question, but he still managed to make his point: New Zealand needs to have a “meaningful conversation” about prisons, and about their eventual replacement with “other more rehabilitative and effective ways of dealing with those who cause harm, and protecting those who are damaged by the harm”.

In his writing, Jackson has argued for a different criminal justice system for Māori, by Māori. When I asked Julia about a future without prisons, she made the point that communities should get the opportunity to put forward their own models for defining and delivering justice.

Radio NZ’s interviewer is probably not the only person in New Zealand to be troubled by the idea of ditching prisons. It is easy to panic at the idea of no prisons without having any idea of what a real alternative looks like.

Dr. Martin pointed me towards Scandinavia, a place that is rethinking what “prison” means. A 2013 Atlantic article described an open prison in Finland. Fewer than 100 prisoners live there, and they leave daily for work or study, returning each evening. They are able to visit close family, when given electronic monitoring bracelets.

Sweden is closing prisons, and the percentages of prisoners who reoffend in Denmark and Iceland have been low, compared with the rest of the world, over the last few decades. Inmates are often able to keep family and friend support networks because they live in smaller, local prisons.

Whether or not Waikeria is expanded, New Zealand is facing a decision about whether to take on the short term problem of overcrowding, or embrace the challenge of reforming its system for the long term. This government has the opportunity to start answering the question “what is an alternative to prisons?”

Julia had a few words to share with VUW students passionate about criminal justice. Her first point was that it’s always tempting to start your own group, but that it is better to follow JustSpeak, PAPA (People Against Prisons Aotearoa) or other pre-existing organizations than to begin from scratch. She thought for a while and added, “influence the spheres that you can influence… I believe in advocacy around your kitchen table. Changes come with cups of tea”.

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