The Corrections department has refused to allow Jared Savage’s best-selling book Gangland inside prison on the grounds that it “promotes violence and drug use”.
An inmate at Otago Corrections Facility in Dunedin was sent a copy of the book – but it was banned and confiscated. The prisoner is self-styled jailhouse lawyer Arthur Taylor. He’s now battling the department, and has filed a complaint to Janis Adair in the Office of the Inspectorate at Corrections.
“There is nothing,” Taylor argues in his complaint, “that justifies or authorises the banning of this book.”
Gangland is a history of modern organised crime in New Zealand. The author, Jared Savage, is an investigative journalist with the New Zealand Herald. His book has consistently featured in the Nielsen best-seller chart since it was published in December.
Taylor was released from custody last week. He told ReadingRoom, “The way this story begins, mate, is that a friend of mine posted me in some books after I was charged with all sorts of shit. I ended up in Otago Corrections Facility. The cops came and picked me up in early December and I must say they were very f**ken professional and reasonable the way they went about it. Not what I’m used to.
“So they took me up there, and a friend of mine decided I might need some reading material over Christmas. There’s just shit on TV that time of year. A bundle of books and magazines arrived, and I said to one of the screws, ‘Hang on, mate, she’s got a note in here saying Gangland by Jared Savage has been included. Where is it?’
“The screws didn’t know, so they rang up the bloody Receiving Office and they said, ‘We’ve banned it on the grounds that it depicts gang regalia.’ I said, ‘Nah, it doesn’t.’ I filed a formal complaint, and the day before I got out, they came back with a completely different reason.”
ReadingRoom has a copy of the letter sent by Corrections to Taylor. It reads, “Management believes that this publication promotes violence and drug use and is a negative influence within a prison and reserves the right not to issue this book.”
Taylor: “Now that is a load of complete and utter nonsense. You look at some of the stuff the prisoners can read. There’s worse stuff in the prison libraries, I can tell you that for free.”
Taylor’s complaint to the Department of Corrections cites section 14 of the Bill of Rights Act 1990 which states that everyone “has the freedom to seek and receive information and opinions of any kind in any form.”
He’s also unhappy that his copy of the book appears to have been flogged. He said, “When I got out of prison on Wednesday, I said, ‘Okay, where’s me bloody book?’ And it’s gone missing! It’s missing! They can’t find it! One of the screws has probably stolen it.”
Corrections state, “We do not want to allow a publication in prison if there are concerns the item…constitutes a risk to prisoner rehabilitation by promoting pro-criminal beliefs”
ReadingRoom sought comment from Corrections about the ban on Gangland. A spokesman responded in writing: “There is no official list of banned books in New Zealand prisons and the decision to allow certain books into prison is made by the relevant Prison Director on a case by case basis. However, there are publications that, while not specifically banned, are not suitable to be authorised in prison.
“We do not want to allow a publication in prison if there are concerns the item may compromise the effective management, security and good order of the prison or constitutes a risk to prisoner rehabilitation by promoting pro-criminal beliefs or activities.”
Jared Savage scorns the view at Corrections that his book promotes violence.
He told ReadingRoom, “I think it’s ridiculous, to be honest. I mean – this entire book is 12 different stories of the police doing a fine job of investigating violent crime and drug crimes. I hardly see how it promotes it or glorifies it in any way. If anything it shows the consequences of these kinds of crimes. Most of the people in this book are still in prison. I think that’s a pretty weak excuse from Corrections.”
Auckland defence lawyer Emma Priest, who heads up a programme donating books to prison, is also baffled that Gangland was banned.
She said, “There are some prohibited categories of books but they are things like extreme violence, such as American Psycho, or books like 50 Shades of Grey which has quite extreme sexual content. But I’m puzzled about Gangland being prohibited. It doesn’t make sense to me. Having read it, it doesn’t have the extreme graphic violence which is the criteria for withholding books. The book is an amalgamation of information which is in the public arena anyway. These were criminal trials that all took place in open courts and were all widely published in the news. So to ban isn’t logical to me without also banning all crime books and the news.”
But author and sociologist Dr Jarrod Gilbert – whose own book, Patched, a study of New Zealand gangs, is banned in prison – has a measure of sympathy with Corrections.
“I have mixed views on it really. It’s a tricky one. If it [Gangland] was going to create tensions within the prison, then that I can see as a reason. There is a possibility it will inspire some people to lash out. But I don’t think we should be too paternalistic. Unless a book is creating fear and danger within the prison, we should allow books in.”
Jared Savage said the only crime that Gangland inspired was theft: he’s been told that it’s the most stolen book in New Zealand this summer. He said, “I believe Jarrod Gilbert’s Patched is the most stolen book ever. Maybe Gangland will give it a run for its money.”
He conceded, though, that the book might pose a “negative influence within prisons”, as Corrections puts it.
“I can vaguely see the potential for someone [in prison] to read it and be unhappy and lash out. But I think that’s a pretty weak argument around it. I’m actually struggling to think what’s in it that could kick things off…There are people in there,” he said, meaning gang members in the book who are now in prison, “who have their own egos and reputations to uphold. And they may well want to prove they are bigger and badder and tougher than someone else in the book.
“But all the information has already been reported. I don’t think I’m putting anything out there which isn’t known, that hasn’t already been documented by the Herald or wherever.”
It was put to Savage that his book was a different proposition than various news reports, that it was a lengthy and serious project devoted entirely to gangs.
“Yeah. Yeah. No, I agree with that. When you have it all pieced together and wrapped in a cover it seems more official and carries more weight. I’m more sympathetic to Corrections’ second argument than the first,” he said, meaning its “negative influence” was a stronger argument than its claim the book somehow “promotes violence”.
Jared Savage: “What I’d like to know is if Corrections has actually read the book”
Asked if he thought his book should be available in prisons, he said, “I really think if someone wanted to read that inside a prison then I don’t see why they shouldn’t be able to. I do accept there could be vague risk of gang tensions but I really don’t think it glorifies criminality in any way. What I’d like to know is if Corrections has actually read the book.”
Arthur Taylor said he would continue to pursue his action against the Corrections ban. “It’s not just that I wanted to read it,” he said. “All the prisoners were looking forward to having a read of it as soon as I finished it. I had loads of requests.”
Taylor was described at the Court of Appeal in 2015 as “one of the most notorious prison inmates in New Zealand”. He has had convictions for aggravated robbery, firearms offences, drugs charges, and escaping from prison. In more recent years he has established himself as an effective legal advocate. He has previously won a case against Corrections for denying him freedom of expression under the Bill of Rights.
ReadingRoom asked Dr Jarrod Gilbert what he thought of Taylor’s latest claim that being refused a copy of Gangland was a denial of his right to freedom of expression. He said, “Yeah, but prison is about restricting rights! You don’t have freedom of movement in prison. So there are justifiable grounds to restrict people’s rights. I can argue this whole things both ways.
“But I tell you what. I probably wouldn’t argue it with Arthur Taylor, cos he’d beat me. He tends to beat everybody.”
Gangland: New Zealand’s underworld of organised crime by Jared Savage (HarperCollins, $36.99) is available in bookstores nationwide, but not in prisons.