Today we got some very bad news, and frankly quite unexpected news, when Ministers Tolley and English announced the government’s intention to build yet another fiscal and moral failure, a 960 bed prison at Wiri in South Auckland.
I had (foolishly, it seems) been optimistic that a more enlightened social policy and good economic sense might prevail, that the Government would cut their losses and abandon the project. This could even have been done with a degree of Ministerial face saving, given some evidence that prisoner numbers are leveling off, and lining it up with the Government’s professed enthusiasm for cost cutting in the public sector.
It beggars belief that this massive amount of money, $900 million , is to be wasted, when all the evidence is that a fraction of that amount, spent intelligently on reducing offending and recidivism, could see us closing prisons rather than building newer and bigger universities of crime.
‘Justice reinvestment’ is the shorthand for a strategic approach that proposes spending much less public money in the long term while getting much greater gains from managing and reducing offending differently, and increasing public safety and well-being.
Some of this Government’s own initiatives are at least pointing in the right direction – the ‘prevention first’ programme being rolled out by the Police; the intended (albeit long overdue) pilot programme for drug courts in Auckland and Waitakere; policies aimed at diverting young offenders away from the justice system.
These are the sorts of approaches – along with proper drug and alcohol assessments and treatment; literacy and skills programmes; support for released inmates to find stable and affordable accommodation, a job, and help to reintegrate back into society – that will get us to where we need to go.
Instead we have this ‘public private partnership’ being touted as the answer. The history of private prisons internationally is that they end up costing more, do not reduce recidivism, and become a cash cow for multi-national providers of ‘services’.
Worryingly, legislation before the House also contains provisions to devolve powers to private contractors that should stay firmly within the domain of the State, such as determining an inmate’s security classification.
This decision is an expensive travesty, and the Government should be ashamed of its lack of imagination, its refusal to accept compelling evidence that it is wrong, and of being lost in a 19th century mindset around corrections.