Reducing Prison Numbers

post by  Sophie Young

New Zealand prisons are full. New Zealanders are debating whether to build more prisons and lock away more criminals, or to somehow reduce the numbers of prisoners. We have the seventh-highest prison population rate in the OECD, with 155 prisoners per 100,000 population (Stats NZ). We also have statistical evidence suggesting institutional racism. In 2016, Māori made up 15% of the general population and 55.6% of people receiving prison sentences (Johnston, 2016).

‘Tough on crime’ adherents such as Garth McVicar believe that locking more offenders up for longer stretches of time makes the rest of us safer. The problem with this concept is that eventually these offenders will be released from prison and re-enter society. They leave prison with $350, no ID, no job and often nowhere to live . Many released prisoners have poor literacy and numeracy and very limited work experience. Research shows that far from acting as a deterrent, prisons increase recidivism (Cullen, Jonson, & Nagin, 2011). Within two years of release from prison, 57.0% of former prisoners have been reconvicted (Johnston, 2016).

To reduce crime and reduce prisoner numbers, we need to treat prisoners as human beings and as members of our society. We need to help them attain the skills required to function in the twenty-first century and to assist them in connecting to their families, to housing, to employment and to agencies in the community. Some countries are already doing this. Sweden and Finland both have prison population rates of only 57 prisoners per 100,000 population (World Prison Brief, 2016). These countries have humane prison conditions and a culture of ‘redemption, learning, training and cure’ (Pratt & Eriksson, 2011). More prisoners work or study in Scandinavian prisons than in New Zealand facilities, officers and inmates have more interaction and prisons are as small as 50 or 60 beds. As a comparison, Rimutaka Prison has more than 1000 beds and Auckland South Corrections Facility has 958 .

New York State closed 14 prisons between 2009 and 2017, while crimes rates in New York City dropped by 58% between 1996 and 2014 (Zoukis, 2017). Last year New York State announced that it would offer university courses to 2500 inmates as part of ‘a public safety strategy to reduce recidivism’ . In Singapore, The Yellow Ribbon Project works with businesses and community organisations to rehabilitate ex-offenders and reintegrate them into society (Johnston, 2016). Social work lecturers at the University of Pennsylvania created a social service agency to enable their practicum students to work with released prisoners to connect them with essentials such as housing, employment and health (Franke, Treglia, & Cnaan, 2017).

More than 200 prisons internationally, including some in Australia and New Zealand, have introduced a Peace Education Programme  which is claimed to have reduced violence in prisons and recidivism (The Prem Rawat Foundation, 2018). In New Zealand last week, Corrections announced a partnership with The Navigate Initiative to open a reintegration unit in Christchurch Men’s Prison (Pathway, 2018). This will work on living skills, employment preparation, literacy and numeracy, relationship restoration and personal development prior to the men’s release.


Cullen, F. T., Jonson, C. L., & Nagin, D. S. (2011). Prisons do not reduce recidivism: The high cost of ignoring science. The Prison Journal, 91(3_suppl), 48S-65S. DOI: 10.1177/0032885511415224

Franke, N. D., Treglia, D., & Cnaan, R. A. (2017). Reentry Program and Social Work Education: Training the Next Generation of Criminal Justice Social Workers. Journal of evidence-informed social work, 14(6), 409-420. DOI: 10.1080/23761407.2017.1367345

Johnston, A. (2016). Beyond the prison gate: Reoffending and reintegration in Aotearoa New Zealand. Retrieved from Salvation Army website:

Pathway (2018). The Navigate Initiative. Retrieved from

Stats NZ. New Zealand in the OECD: Justice. Retrieved from

World Prison Brief. (2016). Highest to lowest – prison population rate. Retrieved from

Zoukis, C. (2017). New York State closes 14 prisons amid decline in crime rates. Prison Legal News.p.46. Retrieved from

Author: socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand

One thought on “Reducing Prison Numbers”

  1. Great topic and very timely. I feel like Garth McVicar and the lot from sensible sentencing trust have held too much sway within the media and in political circles. It seems a lot of the NZ public lack empathy and really do just want to lock people up and throw away the key…I do hope this government can be brave amidst what I can see will be a media and public backlash in reducing prisoner numbers. I feel like bold action is needed and soon!

    Liked by 1 person

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