The mixed blessing of the local prison

When the Otago Corrections Facility opened in 2007 at Milburn, near Milton, while not exactly a green and pleasant land it was touted as a more humane alternative to the bricks and bars Victorian-era prison in central Dunedin which it replaced.

Intended to house 335 inmates, it was designed as a campus and featured plenty of wide open spaces, plus its own prison farm.

It was swiftly nicknamed the "Milton Hilton" due to its perceived luxuries, such as adequate heating, and promised to be a good neighbour to the surrounding community.

Despite the planned rehabilitative approach used at OCF, its customers have kept coming back and demand for its rooms has greatly increased.

Initially a low to high-medium security and single bunked, the facility’s capacity grew to 454 prisoners with additional construction and the advent of double bunking, and it started housing high security prisoners.

Now comes news that the OCF capacity has increased by 102 beds, largely made up of 87 new high-security beds added in the past six months.

The changes have brought the capacity of the site to 556 beds, although "just" 434 inmates are on the site at present.

The changes in the make-up of the prison’s population in recent years will, rightly, lead locals to ask if the facility they live near is the same as the one they were promised it would be when support for its construction was sought.

Those concerns will have been heightened after news earlier this month that five Corrections officers required hospital assessment and treatment after being attacked by two high-security prisoners.

There have been 16 assaults on staff at Milburn in the past year, although none were classified as serious.

It is also a moot point whether the much-routed rehabilitation focus at the OCF has been able to be maintained in the face of staff shortages across the entire Corrections workforce, the expanding muster, and the shift in the security classification of much of it.

While OCF’s staffing situation is regarded as being better than most prisons, it faces a substantial shortfall of about 70 staff members across various roles.

Last month, before confirmation of the latest expansion at Milton, the Otago Daily Times asked as part of a feature to mark the prison’s 15th year of operation, whether the local crime rate had risen, possibly due to its presence in the community.

Police said they had no information to suggest an increase in crime in the area over the past 15 years, and court records showed proceedings had dropped from 353 in 2015 to 199 last year.

The ODT also tried to assess the touted economic benefit to the area.

As its muster has increased so have staff numbers: from 220 when the prison opened, to about 330 today.

While not all are based in Milton or Milburn, the local population has risen by almost 1000 in that time and produce and products made behind bars have aided community organisations.

On balance, the OCF seems to have been a blessing, albeit a very mixed one, to the area.

Not everyone will feel comfortable at having a prison in their backyard, and some may feel less comfortable at the changing nature of the prison.

For Corrections to retain community confidence, it will need to ensure everyone detained at His Majesty’s pleasure remains detained, and that OCF is a safe environment for staff, volunteers and inmates.


And another thing

Photographer Ans Westra in 2013. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Photographer Ans Westra in 2013. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
The death of Ans Westra deprives New Zealand of one of our most perceptive artists.

The documentary photographer was a Dutch migrant whose view shifted from being an outsider’s eye to a trusted and perceptive local.

Westra chronicled life in this country in a modern and modernist way, gritty portraiture which was light years from the air-brushed perfection which New Zealand had liked to use to depict itself.

She photographed the great, the good, and the great unwashed: her finest works include images of Queen Elizabeth, James K. Baxter and, famously, the people of Ruatoria on laundry day.

Westra truly showed the way we were, honestly and unflinchingly.

We were the better for it.