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Criminal Justice

New Zealand’s broken prison system – Will the flames of Waikeria spark a change?

New Zealand’s broken prison system. 2343 words, 11 minutes

“It is more than 30 years since two landmark reports- proposed transformative changes to Criminal Justice in       New Zealand.       In the decades since, there have been many reports and reviews;  none have led decision-makers to undertake fundamental change”– The Safe and Effective Justice Group(S&EJ), appointed by the Cabinet of Ministers – New Zealand

The Siege

Tuesday 29th December 2020, most New Zealanders were on holiday. COVID free and enjoying the festive season, we flocked to overcrowded beaches and holiday spots.

A group of inmates in a high-security prison in the remote town of Waikeria felt anything but festive. The 109-year-old jail, to be demolished in 2022 and neglected, was to them in an intolerable condition. Amid rising violence, a tinder keg, waiting to explode.

Prison staff received a call from media that a riot might erupt, found nothing untoward, went back to their lunch; soon after, a few fires lit up the exercise yard. The prisoners climbed on the roof and set the rooftop ablaze with burning mattresses. Flames lit up the night sky, an inferno seen from miles away. Seventeen prisoners barricaded themselves and raided the weapons room.

Sirens screaming, firefighters, ambulances and police rushed in; followed by the Prisons’ riot management team and the Police Armed Offenders Squad. The armed offender squad stormed the prison lobbing tear gas grenades and firing rubber bullets. The defences held.

The inmates had leftover food in the kitchen and ‘brown’ drinking water. Set themselves up for a siege, “as long as necessary to be heard,” and issued a manifesto of demands calling the conditions in prison “appalling”.

The CEO of Corrections (Prisons), Jeremy Lightfoot, denied the poor conditions “no complaints received”. The Minister for Corrections, Kelvin Davis, refused to get involved until the incident was over, “an operational matter”. Opposition Party MPs were denied access to the prison. Maori Party MP Rawira Waititi called out the government “let an inhuman environment fester and breaches of basic human rights to occur”.

The prisoners’ families called for the media to be permitted into the prison to counter what they called a false narrative. “They are being treated like animals, only want fair treatment and clean drinking water. They got brown water and stale bread on Christmas day”.

“They got brown water and stale bread on Christmas day”.

The siege dragged on. The prison management adopted an aggressive and much criticised ‘starvation’ strategy of withholding food and water. There were no hostages involved to warrant a softer approach. Passions ran high on both sides of the debate in mainstream and social media.

MP Rawiri Waititi stepped in to negotiate. Let into the prison finally, “after being blocked everywhere I go” and saying, “if the situation turns to custard, it will be entirely the government’s responsibility”.

After a tense six-day standoff, the prisoners surrendered and walked out with MP Waititi. The high-security prison was destroyed and, for some, the reputation of Corrections. Was this a wanton act of destruction by a group of violent men? A cry for help by people at their wit’s end? Or even a noble act of sacrifice to call attention to a severe problem with our prisons.

Was this a wanton act of destruction by a group of violent men? A cry for help? Or even a noble act of sacrifice to call attention to a severe problem with our prisons.

The Maori

The treaty of Waitangi in 1840 promised Maori control over their land and equal status as the European settlers. However, just five years later, the settlers appetite for land led to the Land Wars. When the fighting ended, the Maori had lost 90% of their land. By 1896, an estimated 75% of their population were lost, to war, western diseases and alcohol. Relegated to a subsistence existence, the Maori started migrating to urban areas.  They arrived without land, capital and little education. The work they found were low paid, dirty and arduous.

When the war ended, the Maori had lost 90% of their land. By 1896, an estimated 75% of the population was lost to war, western diseases and alcohol.

Only 3% of the prison population was Maori at the turn of the 20th Century when the urban migration started. It reached 21% in 1945. Urbanisation accelerated after the 2nd World War, as did incarceration rates. From 1955 numbers of Māori in prison increased dramatically, reaching over 50% of the prison population consistently from 1980, while only 15% of the population.

Celia Lashley’s book ‘Journey to Prison’ outlines the complexities of why high numbers of Maori end in prison. Poverty, mental health, family violence, crime-prone environments, family influence, drug prevalence, and gangs. The challenges faced getting out of the prison system. Critics argue that the justice system is stacked against Māori at all stages. They are more likely to be arrested, charged, convicted and imprisoned.

Māori in prison are over 50% of the prison population consistently from 1980, while only 15% of the population.

The Poor

 “Most prisoners come from neighbourhoods and regions with the lowest deprivation indexes and the highest negative statistics in social policy areas. 50 per cent of people convicted of offences in 2013 lived in the 20 per cent most deprived areas of New Zealand.” – S&EJ

New Zealand’s economy was liberalised in the 1980s. The changes were radical and ideology-driven. Taxes on the wealthy were reduced substantially while welfare benefits were slashed. Housing costs and poverty rates soared.

Dr Elizabeth Stanley, Director of the Institute of Criminology at Victoria University, was critical of the government. “Our best research tells us that crime, including family violence and youth crime, is linked to poverty and inequalities. Many options are already on the table—social assistance reforms, reconfigurations of child support, increased social housing, liveable wages. There is no poverty of ideas. Instead, the political challenge seems to lie in ‘poverty of responsibility…the poverty of caring’. We encourage the government to step up and take responsibility.”

50 per cent of people convicted of offences in 2013 lived in the 20 per cent most deprived areas of New Zealand

Our benefits are among the lowest in the developed world. While the Labour government has increased the minimum wage, their attitude towards beneficiaries is far from kind; working and non-working are treated very differently. Some poverty measures improved in 2020, presumably due to the increase in minimum wages helping the working poor.

The Mentally Ill and the Addicted

Weknow that the mental health system is broken, as is the justice system.If the health issues, and then mental health issues, had been dealt with, they (prisoners) might not have ended up where they are.” –S&EJ

“62% of prisoners have been diagnosed with mental health or substance abuse disorder within the last 12 months, of those diagnosed only 46% have received treatment” –Chester Borrows, Chair of S&EJ

At Waikeria, around 75% of prisoners reported inadequate support for mental and emotional issues. Over 85% said no help receive with their drug and alcohol problems. Anecdotal evidence suggests over half of the crimes are committed under the influence of drink and drugs.

Over 85% said no help received with their drug and alcohol problems.

Rehabilitation

At Auckland Prison, the Ombudsman found that prisoners spent less than an hour per day on rehabilitation programs; maximum security prisoners got only three minutes per day. Prisoners received approximately half-hour per day of education, with this figure dropping even further for the high security. The people who need help most get the least.

We spent only 3 minutes per day rehabilitating maximum security prisoners.

Recidivism – out of prison and heading back to crime

If you are sentenced to prison once, you are forever a convicted criminal; your name never comes off the Convicted Criminals database. The Clean Slate Act only applies to lighter crimes. Many employers do pre-employment checks for criminal conviction. 60% of prisoners are convicted again within two years, a statistic that has only gone up in the past two decades. Many five-year plans have come and gone without making any impact.

Paying for their crimes

We pay our prisoners princely sums of between 20 and 60 cents an hour. They are expected to pay for basics like tea and coffee, even toothpaste, toothbrushes and shaving kits, phone calls to families at commercial prices.

The Politics

Politics and sensationalism around a few violent crimes,  ‘prison populism’, rather than evidence, have driven our laws and prison policies over the past three decades. Dr Wayne Goodall, the Principal Strategic Analyst for Corrections, outlines in his report how law changes reacting to specific incidents have increased the prison population.

The sentenced prison population increased 360%, from 2,000 in 1985 to 9195 in 2017 (before dropping to 7,383 in 2020).

The Inspection

The Chief Ombudsman’s team inspected the Waikeria prison in 2019 and reported. The cells in the high-security wing were ill-ventilated and uncomfortably hot. Cells were rundown and had significant amounts of graffiti. Designed for a single prisoner, they were double-bunked and cramped, inmates unable to sit upright on the bottom bed due to proximity to the top bed. The toilets had no lids. All meals except lunch were delivered to the cells. They ate their meals on the bunk beds near uncovered toilets, unsanitary and inappropriate. The bedding was in poor condition: stained, lumpy and torn pillows, torn mattress covers.

They ate their meals on the bunk beds near uncovered toilets, unsanitary and inappropriate.

Prisoners segregated due to behaviour issues were locked up 22 hours a day, with no time to address these issues. Prisoners had nothing to do all day—conditions deplorable and no improvement since the previous inspection in 2016.

High levels of gangs and violence – a third of prisoners reported being assaulted in prison; most didn’t report fearing consequences.

Dinner was delivered as early as 4pm—some meals were of poor quality. No access to hot water; they made their hot drinks and noodles from hot water in showers. Drinking water was discoloured and cloudy.

No access to hot water; they made their hot drinks and noodles from hot water in showers. Drinking water was discoloured and cloudy.

The gym was poorly ventilated, equipment old and rusty, toilet blocked and dirty, showers were broken. The exercise yards were shabby, with green mould and graffiti.

Libraries facilities are limited, mainly stocked with books discarded by the public libraries. Prisoners in the high-security wing could not request books from the library; what reading material available was unsuitable. They had no access to educational opportunities.

“The High-Security wing is not fit for purpose”.

Norway

BBC’s Emma Jane Kirby wrote about her visit to Norway’s maximum-security Halden Prison. “Can you feel the stretch?” she gently asks a heavily tattooed man as she settles his ruffled T-shirt and smoothes his back with her hand. It could be a yoga class at any health retreat anywhere in the world. “It calms them,” says prison governor Are Hoidal approvingly. “We don’t want anger and violence in this place. We want calm and peaceful inmates.”

Set in beautiful blueberry woods, peppered with majestic silver birch and pine trees. Accommodation blocks and chalet-style buildings of Halden Prison look like a trendy university campus rather than a jail. Each cell has a bed, a small fridge, a bookshelf, a TV, a desk and chair, plus a private bathroom including a shower, a toilet and a sink. There is also a music studio –”Criminal Records”, a garden, a holy room, gym, training room, library, computer room, family visiting house and more. A school offers an opportunity to get a proper education.

A prison officer on a silver micro-scooter greets us cheerily as he wheels past. Two prisoners jogging dutifully, keep pace. Hoidal laughs. “It’s called dynamic security!” he grins. “Guards and prisoners are together all the time. They eat, play volleyball, do leisure activities together, and that allows us to really interact with prisoners, to talk to them and motivate them.”

In Scandinavian countries, the focus is on rehabilitation from day one. Finding employment and adjusting to life in the community are the most critical elements for successful reintegration. The prison conditions are kept as normal as possible. The prisoners wake up by 7 am, can stay up late. Relationships with staff and other prisoners enhance normalcy.

Perhaps the most crucial factor for keeping people out of prison is employment. Prisoners choose from a range of jobs available in prison. They are paid regular wages (In New Zealand, prison pay rates are between 20 and 60 cents per hour!) and encouraged to develop skills. Academic opportunities are also provided as most prisoners have a low education level.

In Norway, the prisoners are paid regular wages; in New Zealand, pay rates are between 20 and 60 cents per hour

Norway’s prison changes are a recent phenomenon following radical reforms in the 1990s, which dramatically reduced reoffending from around 60% to 20% today.

Anglo-American countries have followed a punitive approach to prisons; the USA has the highest prison population globally. New Zealand has the 5th highest prison population rate among the OECD countries, at 199 per 100,000.

Most European countries have opted for a humane, rehabilitation-based approach; have the lowest incarceration and reconviction rates. Germany has a prison population of 77 per 100,000, Sweden 61, Norway – 60. New Zealand imprisons more than three times as Sweden and Norway.

60% of New Zealand prisoners are reconvicted within two years (for Maori New Zealanders, 68%). In Norway, it is 20%, Sweden 34%, Germany 40%.

The Safe and Effective Justice Group(S&EJ) issued their final report in December 2019, calling for radical changes, “gradual replacement of most prisons with community-based habilitation centres”. It warned that significant upfront investment is required. The Corrections Department’s Financial forecasts have no extra funding allocated.

“New Zealanders have delivered us a clear message: we cannot wait another 30 years.   We cannot afford another generation of hurt. To create the conditions for sustainable change.”-The Safe and Effective Justice Group

Is this message falling on deaf ears, water off a duck’s back? Is Hokai Rangi just another 5-year plan? Will the riot at Waikeria change anything?

The Corrections (Prisons) Department choose not to comment for this article. They did provide a majority of information requested under the Official Information Act.

Whilst the prison system detailed here refers to New Zealand, a similar punitive system also applies to other Anglo-American countries, probably the USA prison and criminal justice systems are far worse than the others.

By Kushlan

Interested in social justice issues and climate change

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