Professionals against prisons Aotearoa

A guest blog post by Kendra Cox (BSW student, University of Auckland and organiser with People Against Prisons Aotearoa. Iwi affiliations Te Ure o Uenukukōpako, Te Whakatōhea, Ngāi Tuhoe and Ngāti Porou)

A few weeks ago the recently elected Labour-led government announced that they are considering taking up the torch for the proposed Waikeria prison expansion floated under the National party in 2016 (Department of Corrections, 2016). The prospective expansion to the Waikato facility, just south of Te Awamutu, has ballooned from an extra capacity of 1500 to 3000 in the last eighteen months (Fisher, 2018a; Otorohanga District Council, 2017). The newest figures would raise the capacity of Waikeria Prison from 778 to nearly 3800, a higher number than our three largest correctional facilities combined. This ‘mega-prison’ has been celebrated by some, who are keen to see the influx of cash and jobs to the rural Waikato (Biddle, 2017). But the rapidly increasing prison population, which exceeded 10,000 last year and is now nearly 10,700 (Fisher, 2018a), has to be measured in more than just economic stimulation for the regions. Mass incarceration in Aotearoa should be measured instead by the human cost of families and communities ripped apart, of lives destroyed, and of social problems that continue to find a foothold and flourish in an increasingly unequal society.

It sometimes seems that prisons, like the rest of our political and economic systems, are an immutable force that are too powerful to reckon with. But the history of prisons in Aotearoa and Te Waipounamu go back less than a quarter of the time that people have lived in these lush lands. Prisons and an imported colonial justice system have been used in New Zealand since their beginnings to punish those that don’t obey the politico-economic paradigm. First, the might of the criminal justice and correctional system was wielded against Māori rebels like the peaceful community of Parihaka, and later against poor and working-class people broken and marginalised by capitalism. Prisons now, as then, are used to crush people who do not or cannot fit the expectations required of productive New Zealand citizens. These people are still overwhelmingly Māori. They are still overwhelmingly people that are excluded from participating in society the way that most of us are accustomed to. It’s not a coincidence that Waikeria prison is on stolen Māori land, taken from Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāti Raukawa by the Crown under the Public Works Act. It’s not an accident that prisoners with a custodial sentence – around 7000 people – can’t vote. It’s not an oversight that prisoners only make up to a dollar for every hour they work and have none of the legal rights of other employees. Prisons do wonders for continuing the exploitation and marginalisation of certain groups but do little to rehabilitate people and heal the communal wounds often caused by that exploitation and marginalisation.

Illustration of Kaine Morrell from candlelight vigil for victims of prison suicide (Image Credit: Meg Williams)
Illustration of Kaine Morrell from candlelight vigil for victims of prison suicide (Image Credit: Meg Williams)

There is enough hard evidence out there to convince even some of the more punitive-minded among us that prisons don’t solve social problems (No Pride in Prisons, 2016; Lamusse, 2018). Prisons don’t fix the harm caused to victims and survivors of interpersonal violence, they usually don’t make the perpetrators less violent, they don’t stop addiction and substance abuse, and they certainly don’t fix the economic conditions that force people into stealing and dealing. We know, instead, that many incarcerated people have neuro-disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, and struggle with mental illness (Warhurst, 2016; Coster, 2017). Often, people with mental health concerns or a risk of violence towards themselves or others are placed in solitary confinement, rather than receiving the care and support they need (Lamusse, 2018). Just last month, a young man – Kaine Morrell, who had recently been moved from the youth wing of Christchurch Men’s Prison to the general population – killed himself after being placed in solitary confinement (Bayer, 2018). Chucking someone in a box and telling them to think about what they’ve done won’t work when their conditions on the outside are just as punishing, and when they haven’t received enough – if any – therapeutic care. So, what does this mean for social and community workers who are often tasked with this therapeutic care? Social and community workers who are often part of organisations that aid in state surveillance and punishment of these exploited and marginalised communities, who sit on parole boards, and who, somewhat contradictorily, tend to want to see these people and communities overcome their struggles?

There is no rational or compassionate reason for social workers to support the proposed Waikeria expansion. When the capacity exists, the justice and correctional systems will work to fill it – otherwise it becomes a failure, a weapon of wasted taxpayer dollars for the parliamentary opposition. There is already significant pushback against the proposed Waikeria expansion (Fisher, 2018b), a contestation of the status quo that social workers should add their collective voices to. Social workers have a unique viewpoint informed by a broad spectrum of social, psychological, and legal theories, as well as a practical understanding of what trauma, structural and interpersonal violence, and marginalisation does to individuals and communities. This theoretical and practical knowledge should be utilised to dispute the ‘tough-on-crime’ rhetoric of mass incarceration. The laws and policies behind mass incarceration in Aotearoa are all specific decisions on the part of legislators, policy makers, politicians, and lobbyists, and require strong and concerted opposition. Part of resisting neoliberal technocratic social work practice is engaging politically with the structures that prevent the ‘empowerment and liberation of people’. The current paradigm of locking more and more people away, leaving communities broken and trauma unhealed, can be changed. And social workers can help change it.

You can help People Against Prisons Aotearoa end the destructive practice of solitary confinement in New Zealand prisons by signing our petition here.

Feature image credit: Accompany Collective


Bayer, K. (2018). Candlelight vigils to protest prison suicide after teen dies in cell. New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from

Biddle, D. (2017). Otorohanga had big plans for prison expansion. Stuff. Retrieved from

Coster, D. (2017). Imprisoning the ill: Are NZs prisons becoming de-facto mental health units? Stuff.

Department of Corrections. (2016). Government approves plans for increased prison capacity.

Fisher, D. (2018a). New Zealand Herald. Mega prison plans head to Cabinet as Jacinda Ardern urged to keep Waitangi promise. Retrieved from

Fisher, D. (2018b). Andrew Little: ‘Longer sentences, more prisoners – it doesn’t work and it has to stop. New Zealand Herald.

Lamusse, T. (2018). Solitary confinement in New Zealand prisons. Retrieved from

No Pride in Prisons. (2016). Abolitionist demands. Auckland, New Zealand: No Pride in Prisons Press. Retrieved from

Otorohanga District Council. (2017). Proposed alteration for designation to Waikeria prison: Planning report under section 198D of the Resource Management Act 1991. Retrieved from

Warhurst, L. (2016). Neurologically disabled overrepresented in prison. Newshub. Retrieved from

6 replies on “Professionals against prisons Aotearoa”

“Part of resisting neoliberal technocratic social work practice is engaging politically with the structures that prevent the ‘empowerment and liberation of people’.”

As I reflect on the above statement, and as a social work educator, I am challenged by what we are teaching our future social work practitioners. What are we preparing them for? Are we simply producing more technocratic social work practitioners? What then is the alternative?

Could we prepare practitioners who are also competent and confident to engage and challenge structures as part of a “new normative social work practice”? If so, then what would we be teaching them? What would this new normative social work practice look like? Does it include equipping our students to understand in a more nuanced way the role of things like power, personal bias, personal prejudices, and our own privileges? Does it include equipping students to engage with dissenting practices? civil disobedience? Are we teaching students how to engage with social action? How might practices such as whistle blowing become a ‘normative part’ of social work practice? And, as social work educators how might these be reflected in our assessment practices? How might these ‘seemingly distant’ social work practices, shift to become our new norm?

I am left with a lot of questions, but also am very hopeful. As social work educators we have a lot of opportunities and possibilities to be able to influence and shape a ‘new normative social work practice’ in Aotearoa. How daring might we be?

Nga mihi na
Jimi McKay

Great comment and useful reflection.

As a recent undergrad student, and now occasional educator, I am pretty confident in saying that I don’t think we are teaching students the skills needed to competently and confidently challenges structures. This isn’t because I think we are failing to teach students to think critically about power, or the role of social workers. I think (generally) that social work education has a pretty good focus on this.

Where I think we are failing is actually equipping students with the tools needed to collectively organise, to work together in workplaces which are antagonistic to social justice. A couple of days ago I was challenged by a student who complimented me on my lecture but said that students hadn’t actually received any practical education on challenging a manger over a decision, or on how to talk to colleagues about political matters. His comments reflected my concerns; that we are teaching students political analysis which is disconnected from the reality of practice.

Kia ora Kendra. Thanks for putting this issue in front of us and arguing it so strongly. The petition is signed. Your words reminded me of some writing I started late last year after an experience I had a local bakery not far from the prison. (I have lived in the farming community near Waikeria Prison for nearly 2 decades). While I was buying my pie, a huge tour bus pulled in, full of young American (mostly I think), youngish men (mostly). I got to talking with them and discovered they’d been brought in to consult on the prison expansion, plumbing and such like, and one of them asked me what I thought of it. I told him it was an abomination, but I also told him my opinion was far from representative of most people in my community. This is the eye of the fight. Our local papers report the economic benefits on their front pages – I see the small towns around here perking up their ears, adding new coats of paint to the storefronts. I hear excited neighbours and local people talk about how great it is, the jobs, the need get more people behind bars, and for longer. Maybe some of our politicians are starting to learn how wrong we are getting this. But I tell you, it’s the sausage sizzles outside the Warehouse, the school sports days, the coffee shops and bars – that’s where you hear what the Waikato really thinks about this mega-monstrosity. Maybe my lonely letters to the editor help? Those uncomfortable chats at the supermarket? (that SW education Jimi?). This is a very conservative community in my experience, not without beautiful pockets of compassion and strong community spirit, but hard as nails mostly. I have to hope it’s changing. Thanks again for your writing – I feel a little less lonely, and a lot more angry!

Ngā mihi Deb,
Thanks for sharing your experience! I don’t doubt that you’re a bit of an isolated voice against the expansion in your community. It’s tough to argue against economic rejuvenation in places that might need it. Realistically, the Waikeria expansion WOULD create a whole lot of jobs for people who need them, and bring money into your kāinga. But it says something about the politico-economic structure of society that communities need something like a mega-prison for people to have secure (even if time-limited) employment and enough money to live. You could put a project of this size anywhere in the country and there would be people lining up to build, plumb, and clean it. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of other things that need to be done and jobs that could be made in rural and small town (and everywhere else) Aotearoa, but of course capitalism doesn’t operate on what people or society needs.
Despite all that – the expansion would be a tragedy, maybe not for people in the immediate area, but certainly for people elsewhere. A 30% capacity increase is monstrous. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but JustSpeak and Action Station have started a letter campaign against the expansion, where you can send a letter to Kelvin Davis and Andrew Little (for every e-mail sent they will print out a hard copy and mail it to them as well).
People Against Prisons Aotearoa are pretty invested in stopping the expansion (and prison abolition more widely), so keep your ear to the ground there if you don’t already! We’re very active on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for signing the petition, too!

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