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Waikeria expansion welcomed by Taranaki-King Country MP

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Aerial photo of the new Waikeria facility. under construction. Photo / Department of Corrections

Taranaki-King Country MP Barbara Kuriger said she was pleased about the Waikeria Prison extension.

She said an investment of $1.9 billion in Corrections over the next four years would deliver the 810-bed extension to Waikeria Prison, as well as new frontline staff, a pay increase for Corrections staff and an extension of rehabilitation programmes for prisoners on remand.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon made the announcement last week.

Waikeria’s current capacity is 455 – it will grow to 1865.

After some confusion about capacity at Waikeria Prison, Luxon said the facts were straightforward: “There’s 455 beds today, there’s 600 going in next year and there’s another 810 coming with this funding.”

Kuriger said the 810-bed extension to Waikeria Prison, on top of the 600-bed extension that is being built as part of Labour’s plan, would ensure the prison had the capacity to deliver on National’s commitment to having stronger sentencing for criminals.

Taranaki - King Country MP Barbara Kuriger.
Taranaki – King Country MP Barbara Kuriger.

“The previous Government announced a new 600-bed facility, we don’t think this goes far enough,” Kuriger said.

“That is why we announced that the extra beds at Waikeria Prison will be delivered on top of the 600 beds due during the middle of next year.

“The Department of Corrections found savings of $442 million over four years and these savings have been reinvested into the frontline.

“The Correction’s frontline staff work incredibly hard to manage violent offenders, so it is great to see that this announcement includes investing in staff through pay increases.”

Kuriger believes Waikeria Prison was poorly managed by the previous Government and this has put a lot of pressure on Corrections.

“We are turning this around and will deliver 685 new frontline staff at Corrections, including 470 Corrections officers trained to respond to growing prisoner numbers,” she said.

Artist rendered photo of what the completed 600 bed site will look like.
Artist rendered photo of what the completed 600 bed site will look like.

“Although we agree with reducing prisoner numbers, this is only possible through a reduction in crime.

“We know that it is important to break the cycle of offending and support people to turn their lives around.”

Kuriger said this is why the announcement was not only focused on getting criminals off the street but also invested $78m to extend rehabilitation programmes for the 45 per cent of prisoners who are on remand.

She said some prisoners spend a considerable amount of time on remand, so the opportunity to start a rehabilitation programme was a valuable use of time.

“Remand prisoners can show intent to be reformed before their court appearance,” she said.

“That should have some value in the eyes of judges.”

Waikeria expansion not smooth sailing

The redevelopment project was first announced in 2018 by then-minister of Corrections Kelvin Davis and was originally set to be finished by early 2022.

It promised a 500-bed high-security prison, and an additional 100 beds in a dedicated mental health and addiction facility. It was meant to replace the current one, which is over 100 years old.

Waikeria was the site of New Zealand’s biggest prison riot over the 2020-21 New Year period – 17 inmates burned a high-security unit to the ground, in protest over “inhumane” conditions. The riot amassed more than $50m in damages.

The project site is 21 hectares and includes 1.7km of secure perimeter fencing. The site was prepared for construction in late 2018 and piling began in May 2019. The new facilities are being developed next to the prison’s existing accommodation units.

The aftermath of the damage to Waikeria Prison, after the six-day riot and standoff at the prison in January 2021. Photo / NZME
The aftermath of the damage to Waikeria Prison, after the six-day riot and standoff at the prison in January 2021. Photo / NZME

It came after National’s plans to build a 2000 to 3000-bed ‘mega-prison’ at Waikeria were scrapped by Labour.

Prison expansion to put pressure on local infrastructure

Plans to supersize the rural Waikato prison could put a strain on local infrastructure including housing, access to GPs and schools.

Property Brokers Te Awamutu branch manager Rebecca Fraser said between Te Kūiti and Te Awamutu the company had about 200 rentals, but only four were vacant.

She told Checkpoint there was a huge demand for rentals, but there were also houses to buy.

“We’re currently in the buyer’s market and there’s an oversupply of homes for sale.”

However, it would be a struggle for people to get rental accommodation, she said.

But with law changes around bright line test, she said more investors could be entering the market there.

“We also may see the opposite. With bright line rules reducing the time frame, we may see people wanting to sell their rental portfolios.”

A three-bedroom rental in a new build costs about $680, but in an older home, it is $550 to $600 a week.

“There’s such a high demand. You get a lot of people thinking that the higher the rent, the better quality the tenant, but that’s not always the case.”

She said working families could not afford these rents, especially if they were on one income with a young family.

A prison officer’s starting salary is $65,000.

But the issues go beyond accommodation.

The average wait to see a GP for a non-urgent visit was three weeks, she said.

And rural schools were seeing a shrinking in green spaces to accommodate more classrooms.

“We definitely need some more infrastructure and that’s an ongoing debate with council.”

She said fewer people were moving to the area than expected – home consents were down 37 per cent in two years.

Dean Taylor is a community journalist with more than 35 years of experience and is editor of the Te Awamutu Courier and Waikato Herald. Additonal reporting – RNZ

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