Shane Cowlishaw: Secrecy won’t solve prison problem

The Government faces a billion dollar conundrum.

Build a mega-extension to Waikeria Prison to deal with a ballooning incarceration rate, or turn to alternatives and risk running out of space.

There have been screeds written about why the prison population has risen so dramatically, but the immediate options being suggested to reduce numbers are shrouded in secrecy.

We can guess, of course. More double-bunking, which currently sits at 40 percent of capacity, could be introduced while extra prefab and container units could be banged together.

But facing such an expensive prison build decision, the Government believes the public doesn’t deserve to know what those options are or which is the best.

Under the Official Information Act (OIA), I requested information about options to reduce the prison muster from both the Corrections Department and Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis.

Corrections deferred the first two of my questions to Davis and, three months on, still haven’t bothered to reply to the other one.

Davis’s response came last week (extended and overdue but hey, it’s the OIA), and was, frankly, pitiful.

The options were blacked out, public interest deemed to be outweighed by official’s confidentiality.

Redactions to an OIA response from Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis.

The response particularly smacked because of, ironically, Davis’ own railing against the exact same thing.

Last year, I requested the same information from then Corrections Minister Louise Upston and received the same refusal.

In that same story Davis, then much more loosely spoken in opposition, slammed Upston for not releasing the options.

It “beggars belief”, he said, as a government was not beholden to take the advice given to it.

“What they’re suggesting is not of national security significance, what they’re scared of is people saying they’re going soft on crime.”

After he became Minister I asked Davis if he would now release that information. He became flummoxed and attempted to dodge the question, but we now know that the answer is no.

The reality is that in that story last year he hit on the exact problem he is now facing - being perceived as being lax on lawbreakers has long been political poison.

Once a political party is in power any bold talk of reform often shrivels up as the opposition takes aim. One of Simon Bridges’s first acts as National leader was to attack the Prime Minister about being soft on crime.

"But if they want public buy-in to such an emotive issue they should start acting like the transparent government they promised to be, rather than hiding behind the OIA."

If New Zealand really wants to change the way its justice system works then the politicians must lead from the front.

The Scandinavian prison system is often thrown up as a perfect fix but it’s not that simple, not for New Zealand anyway.

While there are interesting facets worth exploring, such as looking at how media cover serious crime, we have a uniquely difficult nut to crack in Māori incarceration rates.

To address this, alongside the swelling remand population, a complete overhaul of the entire justice pipeline from legislation to rehabilitation to speeding up the courts is necessary.

Davis is known to be meeting with fellow justice sector ministers Andrew Little and Stuart Nash to discuss such an approach that will get the Government on the road to its 30 percent prison population reduction goal.

But if they want public buy-in to such an emotive issue they should start acting like the transparent government they promised to be, rather than hiding behind the OIA.

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