JUNE 2000

Last issue the former head of Paremoremo jail called for the reintroduction of the death penalty. Now the prisoners are saying the jails are just training grounds for criminals.


A police helicopter hovered overhead during a conversation with Development and Operations Manager for Mt Eden Prison, Bridget Bradley. It was Friday, 28th April at 4.00pm. Travis Burns and Tommy Nikau had just escaped. When I asked Bradley for permission to interview prisoners, she instructed me to contact Corrections Dept Communications Officer, Andrew Bristol, and he then preached to me according to the gospel of permission.

“We don’t allow the media to communicate with prisoners, unless they can convince me in writing that it’s for the purpose of their rehabilitation. I think the best people to talk to about prisoners are our psychologists. We’ve got the best in the world,” he announced.

“May I interview the psychologists?”

“You’ll have to go through me first in writing for permission.”

We have 17 prisons throughout New Zealand holding a population of around 5500, for which it costs an average of $139 per person, per day to secure. Prisons are costly to manage. Approximately $532,767,000 was allocated to the Dept of Corrections in the 12 months to June 2000 and, as justice campaigner Jim Consedine points out in his book Restorative Justice, there’s no other sphere of government expenditure less scrutinized in terms of its positive effectiveness.

If one does scrutinize it by considering the re-offending rate, the alarming escalation in numbers imprisoned each year, and our crime statistics as well, those funds gobbled up by the Dept of Corrections have not only been unproductive, but they seem to have generated the very criminal activity they should have reduced.

For instance, evidence cited in the Dept of Corrections 1999/2000 Annual Report indicates that following release, there is a high likelihood ex-inmates will re-offend. Within only 24 months of release, 80% of ex-inmates here were re-convicted, in comparison with 37% in Australia, 57% in Canada, 56% in England/Wales and 69% in Scotland.

So what is occurring inside our prisons to produce such a high rate of re-offending? Defence counsel of 44 years, Kevin Ryan, QC, believes the cause is that society much prefers to pour money into retaliation and revenge, rather than rehabilitation.

“I’ve seen prison have a terrible effect on people. Inmates have so much going against them and if one talks about doing anything positive for them, members of the public, including so-called Christians, say they don’t deserve help,” he grumbles angrily.

One of New Zealand’s best known outlaws, inmate Arthur William Taylor agrees. Taylor, who rocketed to fame as one of four alleged dangerous escapers two years ago who holed up in a Coromandel mansion, has spent about 20 of his 43 years of life in Paremoremo prison and claims that prison staff appear to scoff at the concept of rehabilitation.

Furthermore, Taylor implied that as inmates were neither provided with constructive pursuits, nor taught new ways of reasoning, they readily fell prey to the homogenizing effect of socializing with hardened criminals. And he writes:

“I’ve heard murderers talking about how they’ve killed in a manner you and I’d discuss the stock market. Murdering is of no consequence to certain inmates and they’re bolstering each other’s beliefs it’s acceptable. A pair of lifers in B-block, discuss murdering using jiu-jitsu and although staff know they’re planning to kill, this couple is allowed to continue associating. Staff don’t teach them any better.”

Likewise, an inmate serving 4 years at Christchurch’s Rolleston prison paints a similarly desolate picture.

“There are no rehabilitation programs in this system to train you for a job for when you get out. All we do is sit in a jail cell or the yards doing nothing useful. And they talk about ‘rehabilitation’. Rehabilitation is a major joke. I’m very bored. I’ve been in trouble all my life and just started to focus on my talents. I see a lot of re-offenders in prison. The prisons are comfortable, but there are a lot of inmates who would like programs designed to help them get a job.”

Taylor, who ridicules the integrity of his captors, has fought for prisoners’ rights throughout much of his hiatus behind bars, and plans to sue the Dept of Corrections for breaches of his human rights when he’s released in December.

“It is disgraceful the way the Dept of Corrections treats inmates,” he wrote. The Penal Institutions Regulations 1999 state: every institution must be operated in a manner that provides for the fair, safe, secure, and humane management of its inmates, so as to facilitate their eventual reintegration into the community. This Dept can’t even abide by its own rules. For example, staff at Paremoremo try and deny us our basic human rights. They lock some inmates up in cells 23 hours a day, with no access to educational material, they’re not allowed out for exercise and it’s almost impossible for them to communicate with family.

“At one stage my cell was chained up, I was restricted to one 15 minute phone call a week, separated from all other inmates and denied contact with my family for 2 months, because I’d suggested to prison management that if they treated inmates with more respect, they may achieve more positive results and reduce the number of fires, protests and windows being smashed.”

Reputed to have an IQ of more than 150, the roguish Taylor drifted into crime as a teenager as a consequence of becoming bored at school. “I preferred to go fishing or go to the library,” he wrote. In the 1960’s truants were customarily taken into Social Welfare homes, as Taylor was, and there he mingled with children accused of serious crimes. “It wasn’t long before the other boys taught me how to steal cars and made me realize breaking laws wasn’t so dreadful. I see the same thing occurring with inmates – I’ve seen a car thief become a bank robber and a bank robber become a murderer.”

Since he began serving a 15-year sentence for masterminding the 1991 robberies of Anthea’s Antiques in Remuera and the BNZ at Te Kauwhata, he’s witnessed the prison becoming more barbaric, repressive and dismal. Inmates are neither given ‘real’ jobs, nor educated, and books are scarce. A Resource Centre staff member validated this:

“There was no money to buy books this year, because the $3,500 I usually get, was used for computer-related costs. It’s really appalling and so depressing. I’m having to buy secondhand books using my own money. I’ve spoken to two managers about it and got nowhere.”

Taylor, who has taught dozens of inmates to read and write himself wrote:

“The funding hasn’t been there for education. Many inmates can’t read because no one has taken the time to help them. I’ve seen transformations in how they feel about life, just after a few hours teaching them. I see so much talent going to waste here. It’s sad.”

How does the Howard League of Penal Reform assist? According to Taylor, it doesn’t.

“In the 20 years I’ve been in prison, they’ve not achieved anything constructive for me. They once stated they’d instigate a judicial review in the High Court into the inhumane treatment of inmates in 1998 and are frequently quoted by the Herald as being interested in our welfare, yet nothing ever comes to fruition. It hurts the inmates – it’s a double-whammy.”

Like Hon Matt Robson, Taylor believes in restorative justice, and believes prisons do generally act as a deterrent. “In my opinion, offenders should be made to face their victims. Most inmates I’ve spoken to, and I’ve spoken to hundreds, have no awareness of the harm they’ve caused. If they’re made to look a victim in the eye and hear about the damage they’ve caused, re-offending will decrease significantly, in my opinion.”

Taylor believes Robson has good ideas on rehabilitation, but doubts they’ll be readily implemented, as many Corrections staff retain a ‘lock the door and throw away the key’ mentality. And Robson does recognize ‘rehabilitation’ is a dirty word amongst some staff.

“I’ve been impressed with staff on the ground who take me aside when I visit a prison and say ‘this Maori focus unit is fantastic, can we have more?’ It’s almost as if they feel they have to tell me in secret that a rehabilitation unit in their prison is working really well. I want staff to realize there’s been a culture change and they now need to focus on rehabilitation,” Robson says.

Mild-mannered sixty-two year old David Wilde (not his real name) was ‘like a fish out of water’ when he began his roller-coaster ride through the criminal justice system in 1991.

“I found it ironic it was called the Dept of Corrections, as I witnessed an insignificant attempt at correction and rehabilitation. It’s almost as if the system is geared to generate re-offending.”

Which, if you think about it, may not be far off the truth. After all, fewer prisoners means job losses in the jails.

Wilde was born and raised in a middle-class suburb in Wellington and in adulthood married, had four children and built up successful takeaway businesses in a South Island town for about 22 years, before separating and moving to Auckland in 1988.

Circumstances that led him to prison took place in 1991 during a holiday in Asia, which he took with a companion who was addicted to heroin. The addict borrowed $3000 of Wilde’s savings to buy the drug, with the intention of both using and selling it in Auckland. On their home journey, the pair passed through Customs uneventfully, though several weeks after their return the drug squad discovered what they had done through an informer.

Wilde had only one prior conviction, for receiving stolen property in 1984, for which he was fined, and was not prepared for what he experienced.

“It was 1991 and I’d been working at an insurance company in the mail room for a year the day police arrested me for importing heroin. I was taken to Central Police station, questioned, locked in their cells, transferred to Mt Eden prison, then dumped in the remand wing, where I was initially imprisoned for several weeks.”

Prisoners are held in the remand section of prison while they await trial, in spite of the fact they may be innocent. Owing to delays in the justice system, people may be held there for six months or more.

“My cell, which I shared, was 6 by 9 feet across with a double bunk bed on one side, and a toilet, basin and metal table on the other. The door was black and steel. I hated it. It oppressed me, as it was so close by and locked. Although we weren’t allowed to, I saved up gold and silver-colored foil from chocolate wrappers and stuck them to the inside of the door and used to stare at them, as they reminded me of sunshine.”

“Every day was the same. The cell door opened at 6.00am and we’d go for a shower, which there weren’t enough of, so there’s pushing and shoving and arseholes push in front. There’s no heating and it’s bloody cold in winter. It’s breakfast time at 6.30am in the wing and we’re given a ration of butter, sugar and tea bags. The food’s passable. We got locked back in our cells with breakfast. Then at 8.00am we’re herded outside, which is stark, dehumanizing; only concrete walls, tar seal and shelters. When it rains, there aren’t enough shelters and I was crammed in with people I didn’t feel at ease with.

“There are toilets where smokers puff and we’d smell dope smoke coming out gratefully, as they’re content, grassed-up. Then at 11.00am we went for lunch, which we took to our cells and stayed in until 1.00pm. Then we’d go outside to the same yard, same people for a repeat three hours and hope to get a visitor as a reprieve from the monotony. Then at 4.00pm we’d go to the wing again for dinner, which we ate locked in our cell, even in summer. We stayed locked in for the rest of night, for 16 hours, even on Christmas day.”

“Young prisoners were prone to kicking their door and yelling out in frustration and some had fits and yelled across to one another. It was 4.00 in the afternoon and the sun was shining. Inmates were stuck inside with a light on. I know it creates anti-establishment feelings, as it’s inhumane. The public made an uproar recently about cruelty served out to pigs penned in. Why don’t they protest on behalf of their own species?”

And prison was like being caged with a blood thirsty leopard for him – one that tore with cruel claws and buried vicious fangs.

“I knew friends of inmate Nga Trego, who’d been doused with sugared-petrol in his cell at Tongariro Prison, then set on fire a day before his release, because he owed a little money for dope. These and other stories about murders in prison had me keeping a watch out the corner of my eye. You don’t know what new inmates are in for and violence is commonplace.

“Some big time crims made a point of finding out who new inmates were and what they were in for, then enacted their own form of justice. I remember a cop a few cells away who’d just arrived in relation to sex offences being viciously beaten by a big time crim in the cop’s cell. A guard came and took the cop away, but left his cell door unlocked. I then heard the crim smash the cop’s TV and other belongings to pieces…I believe big time crims may acquire more freedom and benefits in prison, as some guards are vulnerable to them in various ways on the outside.”

While he was remanded in custody in Mt Eden prison, he over-heard career-orientated burglars discussing ways of evading cameras and alarms and one describing the next job he was going to pull in a high-rise office.

“He knew where the safe was and what was in it and was boasting,” he confides.

Wilde also met inmates who inspired him to flee New Zealand shores, as they informed him he’d serve up to 12 years in prison for the charge of importing heroin.

“Several experienced crims said I should make a run for it. I didn’t think of escaping overseas – it’d never entered my mind. For one thing, the police had my passport. Then one day I spoke to another prisoner in Mt Eden, who said he’d get me a new passport.”

Several days after this revelation, Wilde successfully arranged for bail and was released. Apart from having to sign in once a day at Auckland Central Police station, he was essentially free and met the inmate in the passport-supply business, who fortuitously was also out on bail. He claims he was given a choice of four identities and says, “I chose to be a man with a similar age to mine, then paid $1,500.”

When the day came to collect his fraudulent passport, he sat outside the Dept of Internal Affairs on Queen St, in Auckland, wondering.

“I was hesitant about going in, in case staff would ask questions, but they didn’t. Like honey from heaven, the passport was handed across the counter and as a result, I flew out of the country a few days later,” Wilde says.

“I had to sever off my past with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. I became a new identity and lost most material possessions and contact with my loved ones.”

For 5 1/2 years, he lived in Asia and made a living from teaching English to Thais and Japanese students, until 1997 at which time he became seriously ill with an exotic infection and as he’d used the last of his savings paying hospital bills for five weeks, he’d no choice but to return to prison.

He fronted up to the New Zealand Embassy in Bangkok and informed staff that there was a warrant out for his arrest and that his passport was fraudulent. The embassy then arranged with Thai police to have him extradited.

The emaciated Wilde arrived at Auckland airport, where three detectives met him at the aircraft door, drove him to Auckland Central Police Station and then deposited him in a claustrophobic cell. “I was an escaped prisoner and a big time criminal in their eyes. I wasn’t the heroin importer they seemed to want me to be. I was the wrong person, in the wrong place.”

After interrogating him, he was taken to Mt Eden prison and placed in the remand wing where he remained for six months until his hearing in the High Court on 16 July 1997. He claimed he was not represented properly, as his lawyer left shortly before the trial, leaving his case with a junior who had not been properly briefed. He was found guilty by jury of importing heroin and sentenced to 6 years and again taken to Mt Eden prison; this time as a sentenced prisoner.

As his health deteriorated, he was only made to serve a total of 2 1/2 years, and did so at Mt Eden, Rangipo, Paremoremo and Ohura prisons from 1997 until July 1999.

“I found Ohura and Rangipo more humane than Mt Eden and Pare. I’d my own room, with heating and there was a library. Though it was very boring.”

He displayed 3 certificates he’d been given for courses he had attended while in prison. These lasted a total duration of only 12 days, and were the only ones he was offered.

The first one, titled ‘Healing Attitudes,’ lasted 6 hours. The second, though ambitiously labeled ‘Lifestyle Changes Program’, lasted for merely one week and the third, a 6-day workshop named ‘A Vision For Life’, while being described as being related to teaching inmates to be positive about their futures, had no significant impact according to Wilde.

“We saw a video on Sir Peter Blake and this I gathered, was supposed to illustrate that we too could be heroes, yet I fail to see how it would assist people at the bottom. People don’t alter their lives because of a 6-day program. In my view, prisoners require educating everyday, for several hours and given real work to do. I only saw token gestures born from hackneyed psychology.”

Was he prepared for release?

“I’d been permitted to spend weekends in friends’ homes a few weeks beforehand, which was good and as I’d no savings, I was given $350, as other ex-inmates are. On my first day out, I remember walking across Grafton bridge and I felt like an Eskimo in Mexico. I lacked confidence. The bank wouldn’t give me a cheque account. I did get a job for a few weeks, 5 months after release that paid $7.00 an hour, but I’d a fight with management and was fired. If employers find out I’ve been to prison, I’m sure I wouldn’t get a job, unless they’d known me for a while.”

How has his life changed for being in prison?

“I’m more dependent. I’m on income support, renting a Housing Corp home and the Salvation Army supplied my furniture.”

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