Story: Prisons

Page 1. New Zealand’s prisons

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Imprisonment rate

In May 2011 New Zealand had a prison population of 199 per 100,000 of the population, or 8,755 people out of a population of 4.41 million. This was the eighth-highest rate in the 34 countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Prisons and the prison population

In December 2011 there were 7,934 men in prison, including 1,666 on remand awaiting trial. Of the 499 women in prison, 99 were on remand. Around 40% of people in prison were under 30 years of age. The ethnicity of prisoners was 51.4% Māori, 32.9% European, 11.5% Pacific Islanders and 2.7% Asian.

New Zealand had 16 prisons for male prisoners and three for women.

In March 2012 it was announced that two older prisons, Wellington (Mt Crawford) and New Plymouth would close, along with the older units of some other prisons.

Sentencing and the prison population

The general crime rate declined and stabilised between 1993 and 2011, although violent crime increased. The number of people imprisoned rose substantially over the same period, from 3,763 in 1993 to 8,433 in December 2011.

Following a number of high-profile violent crimes in the 1990s, the Sentencing Act 2002 and Parole Act 2002 were passed. The acts allowed for tougher sentences and stricter parole conditions. While the average length of sentences did not increase greatly, the likelihood of receiving a prison sentence did. In response to the subsequent growth in the prison population four new prisons were opened between 2005 and 2007 – three men’s prisons, at Ngāwhā in Northland, Meremere in Waikato and Milton in Otago, and a women’s prison at Manukau. From 2010 some prisoners were housed in shipping containers to ease the pressure on existing prisons.

A new normal

In a 2006 article Tim Selwyn described life as an inmate at Hawke’s Bay prison. ‘You might be out of your comfort zone but there’s some things you’ll wind up doing just to fit in. You will find yourself mimicking the routines of the other prisoners, whether you’re conscious of it or not. You’ll find yourself tapping on the pipes to warn your neighbours that the screws are making their rounds; playing touch with fully tattooed gang members and swapping dirty anecdotes with a cell full of giggling drug dealers – it’s all part of normal life now.’1


Parole is early release from prison under terms set down by the Parole Board. Offenders sentenced to two years or more in prison become eligible for parole after serving a certain portion of their sentence. The Parole Board makes a decision after assessing any risks to the community. If the board does not release a prisoner eligible for parole, it is required to meet with that prisoner again once every 12 months. The conditions imposed on paroled prisoners include:

  • reporting to a probation officer every 72 hours
  • not living at a prohibited address
  • not moving address without the probation officer’s permission
  • not associating with anyone prohibited by the probation officer
  • taking part in rehabilitative and reintegration assessment, if so directed.

Private prisons

In the 1990s the National government opened prison management up to private companies. The Auckland Central Remand Prison, at Mt Eden, was contracted out to Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) in 1999. That same year a Labour-led government was elected which opposed private prisons. Mt Eden reverted to public control in July 2005. Upon their re-election in 2008, National revived the private prisons policy. In January 2011 the British company Serco Pacific was contracted to run the Mt Eden Corrections Facility for six years. In 2012 it was announced that a new private prison would be built at Wiri, South Auckland, to open in 2015.

Supporters of private prisons see them as bringing experience and innovations into New Zealand from overseas. Opponents of privatisation, including the Corrections Association (the prison officers’ union), argue that prisons are a core public service that should not be sold off to the highest bidder.

No smoking

The Prisons Act 1882 banned tobacco in prisons, on the recommendation of Arthur Hume, the inspector general of prisons. From 1902 prisoners sentenced to more than three months’ hard labour were issued with an ounce (28 grams) of tobacco a week. Beginning in 1925, all prisoners who smoked were issued with a tobacco allowance, on condition of good behaviour. In more recent years smoking was allowed in cells and exercise yards. In July 2011 a total smoking ban was imposed in New Zealand prisons. Corrections Minister Judith Collins said the intent was to improve inmate and staff health and to prevent arson.

Problems with prisons

Prison is an extremely expensive way of dealing with crime. In March 2010 it cost, on average, $90,977 to keep a prisoner in jail for a year. Prisons continue to have problems with violence, suicide, drugs and gangs. On average prisoners have poorer mental and physical health than the general population. Many have problems with addiction, low educational achievement, lack of employment skills and dysfunctional family relationships.

The prison system has come in for a range of criticism. Some commentators maintain that prisons are too soft, sentences are too short and parole is given to easily. Others have argued that prison is generally not an effective way of dealing with crime, particularly petty or non-violent offences.

Rehabilitation and recidivism

The Department of Corrections runs most of New Zealand’s prisons. It aims to reduce reoffending and rehabilitate prisoners, through a number of rehabilitation, drug-treatment and employment-training programmes. Māori focus units are aimed specifically at the high proportion of Māori prisoners. The Kia Marama programme treats child-sex offenders. Despite the range of programmes there remains a high rate of recidivism – in the early 2000s almost 40% of the inmates released from prison were reimprisoned within two years of their release.

  1. Tim Selwyn, ‘Surviving on the inside’, Sunday Star Times, 8 October 2006, p. C4. Back
How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Prisons - New Zealand’s prisons', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 May 2024)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 20 Jun 2012