Podcast: The Detail

A waiting room for danger - our remand crisis

Remand prisoners are kept in a waiting room for danger - and they are high suicide risks. How did this situation turn into a crisis? 

There are around four thousand prisoners on remand in New Zealand, and that number is climbing. They’re not held in holiday camps as a lot of Kiwis would like to believe – conditions for many of them are bleak. It’s being called a crisis; a waiting room for people in the most dangerous part of prison; a disgusting, inhumane existence.

Remand prisoners are being locked up for up to 19 hours a day; having to perform ablutions in front of a cell mate; being bashed, or co-opted into gangs; and having no access to rehabilitation programmes.

Chester Borrows, ex-police officer and National MP, now chairs Te Uepū Hāpai I te Ora, formerly the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group. He’s travelled the country talking to offenders, families and victims about what’s wrong with the justice system, and how to change it.

He says the state has no mandate to treat remand prisoners the same way as sentenced prisoners.

These are people awaiting trial, or another court date, or awaiting sentence – for some reason the court doesn’t trust them to be out in the community while that happens so they’re locked up until then. But as increasing delays occur within our court system, those waits are getting longer. Many of them are now sentenced and, having served their time already, released immediately; turned out on the street with no effort to reform the behaviour that put them there in the first place.

“They’re on ice in safe keeping as opposed to being sentenced and made to do things,” he says. “There are obvious limits on their movements but there are also limits on their activities and that’s one of the big issues – they can’t access any programmes.”

The ‘safe keeping’ is for the safe keeping of the community, not the offender. “I’m not saying the place is safe. By any means.”

In today’s podcast, Chester Borrows talks to Sharon Brettkelly about the problem and the possible solutions.

“I think it is a crisis,” he tells her. “At the moment about 40 percent of our prison population is on remand. That’s going to go to over 50 percent. People are spending longer on remand – it’s not uncommon for the Parole Board to see people who have spent 300 days on remand or even more than that.” One recently was 547 days.

“You’ve got to wonder about the justice in that.”

More people could be on bail – but we’ve changed our laws to make it harder to get bail. Political consensus could be another means of changing things – but there’s political mileage to be made from being seen to be tough on crime. Concessions could be made in the court system to speed up the trial process but it’s often not in the best interest of defence counsel to do that.

Listen to the podcast to get a more in-depth insight into this growing problem.

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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