Exclusive: the Gangland book now ruled safe to read in prisons

Prison officials have overturned their curious ban on Gangland, the best-selling book about the methamphetamine trade by journalist Jared Savage.

Earlier this year ReadingRoom broke the news that the Otago Corrections Facility had decided to prohibit Savage’s book from the prison in Dunedin.

But a ruling from the Orwellian department known as the Office of the Inspectorate has allowed the book to be read by inmates.

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Banning Savage’s book barely seemed to make a lick of sense when the Otago Corrections Facility swooped on the book in January. At the time, self-styled jail lawyer Arthur Taylor was serving a term at the prison, and was keen to read Gangland. Prison officials confiscated his copy and then issued a ban on the book being made available to any of the inmates.

After Taylor was released, he demanded an explanation. Corrections replied, “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.”

The story was picked up by ReadingRoom. Further questions were put to Corrections. A spokesman replied, “There are publications that…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.”

Yes, yes, but what did that have to do with Gangland? Savage is an investigative journalist at the New Zealand Herald. His book Gangland traces the evolution of the gangs who control meth – and the ingenious, sometimes spectacularly successful tactics used by police to stage numerous busts. A recurring message of the book is that methamphetamine crime pays splendidly well but only until your ass is slung in jail.

Arthur Taylor was unimpressed with the ban, and decided to fight Corrections. Gang expert Dr Jarrod Gilbert could see the way the wind was blowing back in January. He told ReadingRoom, “Arthur Taylor tends to beat everybody.”

Taylor duly beat Corrections. His book was returned, and officials have confirmed to Taylor that Gangland is now available to read at the Dunedin prison.

Andy Fitzharris, Principal Inspector at the good old Office of the Inspectorate, emailed Taylor and did his best to explain the ban. (His email was sent in March – but staff made a hash of Taylor’s email address, and it never arrived. Taylor followed up with Corrections this month. Staff finally sent it to the correct address, with an apology: “You have asked why the initial email was sent to the wrong address, I can advise this was human error when the email address was incorrectly transposed into the response letter”.)

Taylor provided ReadingRoom with a copy of Fitzharris’s letter. The Principal Inspector writes, “A prison director will not issue or allow a prisoner to keep an item if: a. the prison director considers the item is likely to interfere with the security and good order of the prison (e.g. gang related paraphernalia and any items with gang related colours, symbols or imagery); b. the prison director considers the item is likely to negatively affect the prisoner’s successful rehabilitation and reintegration.

“At the initial assessment of the book, Otago Corrections Facility declined to issue the book for the reasons given and they were exercising their statutory decision-making power to do so.”

And yet a glowing review of Gangland was published on the Corrections Department’s own site. Peter Johnston, a senior psychologist at Corrections, commended Savage for his book, and in particular for his focus on excellent police work.

However the shrink was a bit careless with his review. He referred to Jared Savage as “Jarrod Savage”, no doubt confusing him with Jarrod Gilbert, who is sometimes mistakenly called Jared Gilbert. Savage wrote to Corrections to clarify the correct spelling of his name. In response, Corrections restricted access to the review.

The book that dare not speak its review….But at least Gangland is now considered acceptable to read at the Dunedin prison.

Fitzherbert wrote to Taylor, “We have been advised that when the book was first reviewed the prison director made the decision to decline the book to manage an unknown risk. The prison director has subsequently had the opportunity to gather more information about the content of the book and has determined that any risk can be managed. The prison director has advised she has now assessed the book as suitable for issue at the site.

“We consider staff took the action they considered appropriate at the time given the content at first viewing. The site has now had the time and opportunity to fully review and consider the book and it’s contents. The decision has now been made to allow the book to be issued. This Office believes the actions taken were reasonable in the circumstances.”

All of which seems to be beautifully constructed double-speak suggesting that the prison director hadn’t actually read the book before banning it.

Jared –  not Jarrod – Savage was approached for comment. He said: “Common sense prevails. I wondered at the time of the ban whether the decision-maker had even read the book, which turned out to be a good guess.”

Taylor was approached for comment. He said: “I think the reasons Corrections advanced for the ban were arrant nonsense.

“Combined with their recent failed attempt to stop me including material damning of them in my forthcoming book Prison Break, it indicates a distinct lack of respect for freedom of expression combined with a dismal lack of understanding of the importance it plays in a free and democratic society and the need for prison managers to be educated as to the relevant legal requirements.”

Prison Break, the story of Taylor’s life and times, has been written with author and journalist Kelly Dennett. It’s due to be published in August. It remains to be seen whether Corrections will allow the book to be issued in prison.

Gangland by Jared Savage (Harper Collins, $35) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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