In March 2011 New Zealand’s prison population was 199 per 100,000 people – the seventh-highest rate out of 30 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). There were 16 prisons for men and three for women, with almost 8,500 inmates in December 2011. In 2022 there was more emphasis on non-custodial sentences and the prison population was 150 per 100,000.
The prison population more than doubled between 1993 and 2011, partly due to tougher sentencing. Four new prisons opened between 2005 and 2007.
In March 2012 it was announced that two older prisons and some older units in other prisons would close.
Most prisons are run by the Department of Corrections, but since the 1990s the government has contracted out management of some prisons to private companies.
Problems with prisons
Prisons are expensive – in 2010 it cost more than $90,000 to keep someone in prison for a year. Violence, suicide, drugs and gangs are a problem. Programmes are run to rehabilitate prisoners, but over one-third of released inmates are back in prison within two years.
New Zealand’s first jails were built in the 1840s from wood or raupō (bulrush), and were so flimsy that prisoners often had to be chained up to stop them escaping. Prisons were overcrowded and poorly resourced, and the mentally ill and homeless were imprisoned with dangerous offenders.
From 1853, when the provinces were formed, provincial governments ran prisons.
After the provinces were abolished in 1876, a national prison system was set up. Conditions were tough, to deter people from committing crimes. From the 1910s reformers suggested that prisons should ‘cure’ people of criminal tendencies, rather than just punishing them.
Mid- to late 20th century
In the 1950s prisoners received better education, food and services, and prison psychologists were appointed. However, the prison population grew as the crime rate rose. Prisons became overcrowded, and in 1965 Mt Eden inmates rioted and burned the prison. Drugs, gangs and violence became problems.
In the 19th century very few Māori were imprisoned. However, numbers rose over the 20th century, and in 2011, 51% of prisoners were Māori (who made up 15% of the total population).
Women have always been a small proportion of the prison population – in 2011, about 6%. In the 19th century women were imprisoned with men, and it was often assumed that women prisoners were incorrigible criminals. From 1913 separate prisons were set up for women.