Waikeria Prison, where inmates have been protesting living conditions. Photo: RNZ/Dan Cook

Prisoners at Waikeria don’t have a “right” to riot, but it’s hardly a surprising consequence given the circumstances there, writes John Bonallack. Here he explains why NZ just doesn’t do justice well.

Along with many other volunteers throughout the country, I do weekly literacy sessions at one of our prisons, which means working with prisoners including those in the high security areas. Poor literacy has long been shown to be a common factor in criminal offending, so whatever they’ve done (I don’t ask), I want the best literacy outcomes for those I tutor. I consider the freedom to go in (and especially out!) of the prison system a privilege and have always found the staff helpful and supportive of the literacy work tutors do.

One prisoner I’m currently working with each week is writing an episode from some part of his life. We use that as a basis for work on punctuation, grammar, spelling and on generally developing his writing technique. After we’ve edited these accounts together, the pieces are typed up as clean versions in chronological order in a clear-file. He is building up a memoir he can keep for himself and his children, banking his memories as it were. Some of his writing is quite amazing, with unexpected insights, and the mechanical side is improving rapidly. I’ve also worked with prisoners taking Open Polytechnic courses and achieving NCEA equivalents, and with those working on complete house-builds in the prison grounds, gaining a wide range of skills and with concrete job offers post-release. So some good things are happening. Another progressive move has been Labour’s partial repeal of National’s law that blocked prisoners from voting. It’s not yet universal franchise, but it is a step forward.

However, there are also troubling aspects. A person I’m currently tutoring has been on remand since September 2020 with a trial date set down for November 2021. Other remand prisoners have to wait even longer. The protracted delay between arrest and trial is clearly a case of justice deferred is justice denied; as far as the system goes, it’s like living continually in debt – there is no more money available, you’re just behind on everything and operating in crisis mode. So with New Zealand’s justice system: when there is a long remand period, there is no more court time available; everything is just running late.

Three months would seem to me a reasonable maximum for a case to be brought to trial. If there were a legal requirement that a remand prisoner be released on bail if he or she could not be brought to trial within those three months, no doubt a way would be found to speed things up.

Another thing that troubles all of the high and medium security prisoners I’ve worked with is the amount of time they are locked down in their cells each day. Meals, toilet and shower are all in the prisoner’s cell, and it’s common to be allowed out for just two 45-minute slots a day in either a small exercise yard like a zoo cage, or in a rec. room – and this can be reduced to one slot if there is unrest or staffing shortages. 

This is surely contrary to human rights as we would want them to be observed in any country, let alone a first-world one like New Zealand, and is an obvious cause and exacerbation of mental illness. The states of mind of the prisoners we tutor can vary from session to session: sometimes they are agitated – stir-crazy – and no wonder. At such times they’re barely in a fit state to be helped with their studies. Some would say, as a prison officers’ spokesperson indicated recently, that this provides incentive for prisoners to behave and get reclassified to a low-medium wing where conditions are better – along the lines of, “The floggings will continue till morale improves”. Recent events at Waikeria Prison are proof, if any were needed, that this approach doesn’t work.

The current prison unrest, the Ombudsman’s recent visit to and findings at Waikeria were timely, as were the remarks of the ex prison officer who spoke anonymously about conditions at that prison. While I don’t consider that prisoners have a “right” to riot, it is hardly a surprising consequence given the circumstances there. Overall, we don’t do justice as well in New Zealand as in many comparable countries: it’s not the prisons’ fault per se – they have to take what the courts send them and, within the resources they are given, they do their best.

It is encouraging to note that since the last election, New Zealand’s prison population has fallen by 10 percent, but we still lock up far too many people, especially Māori, for far too long and with insufficient emphasis on rehabilitation and post-release support. We spend around $100,000 a year keeping each prisoner in jail, and our incarceration rate is 12 percent higher than Australia’s and 40 percent higher than in the UK. Surely Kiwis are not that much worse than Australians or the British? If we saved a few hundred thousand per inmate by reducing our prison population further, we would have that money to spend on more training courses, more Corrections staff, and better job creation and post-release follow-up.

I’m not suggesting that we do away with prisons, nor that the officers who run them have an easy job. It can be a thankless task and I’m frequently impressed by the politeness of prison staff, the dignity with which they try to treat prisoners and the concern they have for them. But let’s support them and resource them and prisons properly so that those who do have to be locked up are in decent safe facilities that provide a pathway to rehabilitation.

Sweden’s staff-prisoner ratio is 2.5 times New Zealand’s, which may be partly why their reoffending rate is 16 percent compared with NZ’s 50 percent. Albert Einstein said that to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of madness. I am hoping that with a reformative government now in power, we will look hard at our Corrections priorities and move away from the lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality of the past and try enlightened approaches that will give us better value for our tax dollars and better outcomes for our prisoners and for society at large.

John Bonallack is a retired teacher, writer, developer of reading material for Pacific schools, and children' book publisher.

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