The State Operated Prisons are the Real Problem
The View from the Inside by Guest Blogger Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara
On 15th October 2007 I was one of the eighteen political activists arrested in the Urewera Terrorism Raids, or Operation 8. While waiting for the laying of terrorism charges, we were detained in various remand prisons around the country. Some of us spent up to 28 days inside before being released on bail awaiting trial.
Four of us, the so called Urewera Four, eventually went to trial. Taame Iti and I were convicted and sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison, while Emily Bailey and Urs Signer were sentenced to 9 months home detention. On the grounds of exceptional behaviour Taame and I were both released after serving about ten months. I spent that ten months in the state run Spring Hill Corrections Facility while Taame was shifted to Waikeria Prison.
What I want to discuss here is my experience in Spring Hill and to some extent in the remand prisons in relation to the current public outcry about the standard of the Serco private run prison because the Serco debate is diverting attention from the atrocious standard of management in state run prisons.
Firstly some terminology
For the sake of this discussion, I will refer to the Mt Eden prison as Auckland Central Remand Centre (ACRP or A-Crap as it was known to us), and the privately operated Mt Eden Prison as Mount Eden Corrections Facility (MECF). I spent about three weeks in each of these prisons, not long, about six weeks in total, but long enough to see what was going on.
A Remand Prison is a prison where either people awaiting trial, or convicted and awaiting sentencing are held.
Sentenced Prison – once sentencing is completed, remand prisoners are sent off to any one of this country’s dozen or so prisons to begin their sentence. I spent ten months in one of these prisons called Spring Hill at the northern side of Waikato.
Prior to my time in prison, I held a some views on the role of prisons, and on prison reform. Many of these views remain, but a few have changed – smashed and discarded due to my experience as a guest of the state.
- Prisons are the way they are because the public is largely uninvolved, and is not actually interested in what goes on inside.
- Most of the general public don’t actually care about what happens to prisoners – they get what they deserve … unless violence is put in the public face, as in the recent Serco revelations.
- The Justice System is determined by politicians who are keener to get re-elected than fixing up a dysfunctional prison system.
- Many of the groups that do engage with the Justice System to advocate for adjustments to the way prisons are run, are often self-serving and/or ideologically driven (i.e. Sensible Sentencing)
Prison violence has been around ever since there was a) violence, and b) prisons. These are the sources of violence that were observable during my time inside (from least to worst):
- Gang recruitment and on-going training (UV)
- Prison justice (UV)
- Understaffing (AV)
- Overcrowding (AV)
I also separate these into two categories in terms of what I believe prisons can do to stop violence – (AV) avoidable violence and (UV) unavoidable violence.
Unavoidable Violence. So for example, while there are ways for a society to mitigate the conditions that cause the proliferation of gangs and the black economy, for example through a fairer society and by undoing some of the prohibitions, these things cannot be solved by a prison system, so they constitute unavoidable violence (UV).
Gang Recruitment and on-going training (UV)
People might be surprised that I list this as the least of the sources of violence. Firstly it is unavoidable violence that comes part and parcel with the society that generated the disparities that lead to the emergence and propagation of gangs.
While societies continue to create the conditions for street gangs, prisons will only perpetuate their longevity and ongoing recruitment. I saw this with my own eyes, to some extent in ACRP/MECF and in full bloom in Spring Hill Corrections Facility (SHCF).
In order for gangs to survive the onslaught of targeted policing decimating their numbers at large, they use your prison system and your tax money to recruit and train the next intake of manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors and security (foot soldiers). The gangs regenerate themselves inside the prisons.
Whether by organised fight clubs to train foot soldiers to do the muscle work, or the more common method of one on one mentoring, your tax dollar is being put to good use by gangs for their objectives. Corrections in its history in this country has never been able to prevent this from occurring, whether under National or Labour, in either private or state run prisons.
This type of daily violence is what I would call Jail.
In prison it is normal, and works in some totally fucked way to make prison very uncomfortable for many, discouraging them from ever wanting to be there again. While I am not advocating for it, this is certainly one of the residuals from this constant level of physical biffo that goes on daily.
In most instances though, gang violence via recruiting and training was isolated to potential gang members, and to hardening the psyche of their current members while awaiting their inevitable release.
People joke about it all the time. Yunno, ‘ha ha ha don’t slip on the soap’, in reference to the general public’s view of what is prison justice, i.e how easy it is to get raped in prison. But prison justice is a real component of all prisons around the world. And prison justice is no laughing matter. Prison justice = violence.
In this country it shows itself in that almost all child molesters end up in the segregated wings (Segs). As soon as it becomes known that someone is incarcerated for child related crimes, they are summarily beaten and that gives them grounds to complain and therefore be reassigned to Segs.
The general public are in two groups on this issue: Group 1 – those who have no clue and don’t really care anyway, and Group 2 – those that know and think it’s acceptable. So to some extent society tolerates prison violence. I myself also tolerated this without question when I saw it in prison.
Other ways prison justice is meted out though are not so palatable.
Prisoners who rat out one another or take a deal in some form or other, are also given the same treatment. Prisons actively encourage narking, so this form of violence is very common.
There is a third type of prison justice, and it is not well known until you have seen it or experienced it with your own eyes, and that is if a prisoner is rich, they will be tapped in every way shape or form for their resources. For the rich this is of course not justice, but to poorer prisoners who have no financial support outside of prison this is their form of prison justice to get one back on rich pricks.
Contrary to the popular misconception prison guards, or ‘Screws’ as they are known inside, cannot be everywhere all the time. This easily allows for what people saw in the so called ‘fight club’ videos that made sensational headlines in recent news.
These mock and semi controlled fights are usually over and done in a matter of minutes, the time it takes for the screws to do their rounds and come back around again. Sure some of the screws turn a blind eye, but mostly it’s just vigilant prisoners who learn the routines of these under staffed prisons.
Spring Hill prison is chronically understaffed by comparison to ACRP & MECF at Mt Eden, by a country mile!
This is in part due to overcrowding of prisons intended to have x amount of staff per y amount of prisoners. Most of the under staffing related violence rears its head during school holiday periods when prison staffing run at a skeleton level.
The only way Spring Hill prison coped with this during my time there was to employ long lockdown hours when staffing levels were low. In many wings this meant 23 hours a day locked down, and one hour outside. For lower security units this meant 20 hours locked down and 4 hours outside. Adding to the stress of these long lockdowns are the number one cause of violence in Spring Hill, and that being the following…
Spring Hill Corrections Facility was built by the Labour Government and completed in 2007 to house 650 sentenced prisoners. Its initial focus was on Pacific Island prisoners, hence it has a Pacific Island focus unit called Vaka, and a Pacific Island church.
With the change of the incoming National government in 2008, the government then embarked on putting more people in prison, 1000’s more than they had bed spaces for. The then Minister of Justice Judith Collins concocted this grand idea of replacing the single bed cells in Spring Hill (and other prisons to some extent) with bunk beds. I bet Collins thought this was a clever cost saving idea, but it however led to a massive and fatal rise in violence. Every prisoner I ever spoke to pointed without hesitation directly back to that one event as the principle catalyst – deliberate over crowding.
Spring Hill now has 1050 prisoners inside cells in facilities designed to be uncomfortable for 650 prisoners. This results directly in a new level of violence that is not isolated to the world of gangs and their training regime. Everyone is susceptible to the violence that ensues from Collins’ intentional overcrowding.
Whether waiting for the one unit telephone, or microwaves, or the two unit washing machines, the result is a daily high level of anxiety that is far above and beyond the intended stress levels prisoners were meant to be under while incarcerated. After weeks of these extended lockdowns, Spring Hill turns into a sort of war zone that makes those so called fight club videos look like child’s play.
In fact, for me, both Serco’s ACRP and MECF were holiday camps compared to the violence I saw daily in Spring Hill.
You have one hour outside, there are 88 of you in a unit, you have a pile of clothes that need washing, there’s two washing machines, which some of the time, at least one of them is broken. There are usually about 1 or 2 working microwaves if you want to cook some soup or porridge, and there is a single telephone for you to call loved ones. The 88 of you have one hour to bang your way to the front of the line to get your washing done.
Sound like fun?
Then once that one hour is over, you are back in your cell with another grown man for the next 23 hours, eating, showering and shitting together (the toilet is in your cell). This is the cause of the other overcrowding related violence where prisoners just get sick of seeing each other’s faces for 20-23 hours a day, and after a week or so of this even the best of mates are ready to scratch each other’s eyes out.
Further exacerbating this are weather conditions.
Spring Hill cells are not insulated and are mostly what you would call outside cells. So in winter temperatures drop to zero in cells overnight, and rise above 30 degrees during the day, over 40 degrees if the prison is on lockdown with 2 persons in a cell.
The air intake in each cell and air extraction were designed for a single prisoner in a cell where most of the daytime they would be outside. During summer’s long lockdowns we would be clawing at the air intake for fresh cooler air until temperatures dropped to a sleepable level at about 2am in the morning.
Winter was just as bad where the only place you could keep warm was on the floor in cells where the floor warmers actually worked. About half didn’t work so huddling under layers of clothes and blankets was the order of the day.
Overcrowding is also the cause of a lot of the medical mistreatment in Spring Hill. The medical centres are under staffed and struggling to cope with the extra 400 prisoners. Added to this is an attitude amongst some of the medical staff that providing crap medical is part of your punishment. This attitude extends to doctors as well who if they tried to pull that shit anywhere else would be had up for malpractice.
Medical do not attribute the stress they encounter in prisoners to overcrowding, but instead become immune to it, showing no concern for prisoners who sometimes have to wait for up to 3 months before receiving medical assistance. This leads to prisoners with preventable health issues ending up in hospitals with chronic health issues.
One such case was a young man in my unit who had breathing issues. His cell mate pressed the emergency button at about 2am to report this, and medical staff arrived at about 7am (as in, when they start in the morning) to find him in very bad shape. He was taken away, like the others, in an ambulance.
He spent a few weeks in hospital then back into high risk/admin then back to our unit. The prison knew there had been a fuck up with him, so to buy his silence they offered him a room in the prison’s self-care unit. He took the deal, not realising that this broke an unspoken prison rule about taking prison deals. Prison justice kicked in and he was summarily beaten black and blue in self-care.
This is how overcrowding turned a simple asthma attack into black eyes and broken ribs. This was not the only case like this.
Life in these double bunked prison cells was so shit that some preferred to spend as much time as they could in the prison’s solitary confinement unit, or ‘The Pound’ as it is called, not because the pound is an easy place to spend your time, but rather because at least there during the long lock downs around the prison, you could have your own room, and did not have to endure the shit soaked air of another person’s excrement.
Now consider the conditions for which a prisoner is sent to the pound, this usually entails committing a serious violent action. Bash up a prisoner, knock out a screw, any form of violence will get you a spot in the pound. Because of this, the pound was usually full, and some of these prisoners ended up doing their pound time in their own double bunked cells.
From my talks with the long term prisoners in my unit, it was their opinion that the murder of one of Spring Hills prison guards in 2010 came from the extreme stress caused by these conditions.
There is no real means for prisoners to get the message out to the general public. They are forbidden internally from talking to journalists. The internal process of escalating these issues is nothing short of a whitewash and cover-up, and prisoners WILL experience prejudice for putting in official complaints.
For this reason, some prisoners in units higher up the hill from where I was began planning in January 2013 what is now known as the Spring Hill Riot which took place later that year. There haven’t been many full blown riots in NZ prisons. A couple of riots in the 1960s, one in 2004, and the one at Spring Hill in 2013.
Typically the cover up system kicked in with the then minister immediately calling it gang related, and the final report whitewashed the riot as being frivolous. But let me be clear, the initial report that this was gang related, and the final report putting the riot down to home-made alcohol was a total, utter, whitewash.
The intention of that riot was to raise the issue of overcrowding I have detailed, and a recent UN report confirmed.
This is the number one issue prisoners have in Spring Hill, it is the only issue they want fixed (even though I will provide what I believe are fixes for all of the above except prison justice), and I promised them that when I had completed my parole period, I would get this message out to you all.
Preventing Violence in Spring Hill and Other Prisons via the Justice System
Some of the violence is an inevitable part of being in prison. Prison Justice for example is case and point. There is not much that I can think of that can be done to reduce this. That aside lets tackle the other 3 issues I listed.
Gang recruitment and on-going training
A gang or club needs new members, and current members need up-skilling. What is no use to these clubs are members who receive prison sentences that exceed the sentences of trainers. These prisoners are looked upon as potential trainers, but they themselves are ignored in the training and recruiting.
Clubs are interested in new prisoners and prisoners with short sentences. Simply put, cut off the supply of this category of prisoner and you will severely impact on the gang related violence and regeneration using your tax dollars.
You won’t end gangs, because society, financial/ racial disparities, capitalism … creates that.
How to cut off the supply?
Well, two ways come to mind. Firstly, many of those poor and working class prisoners who are sentenced to short terms, especially the Maori prisoners, would probably not be in prison if they had proper representation. The government needs to provide a service for free to these and all prisoners actually, to have their cases reviewed with real representation, I’m talking Queens Council or similar level representational reviews.
From my own observation of the cases of the 88 men in the unit, I estimated that about 25% of them were wrongly imprisoned. Cases like cannabis possession – growing, driving without a license and more. Frivolous shit that should have resulted in a non-custodial sentence. These people should not be in a prison that subjects them to the onslaught of violence caused by gang recruiting, understaffing and overcrowding.
In this measure alone, you would see a massive drop in numbers of Maori prisoners in prison as well.
Secondly, find a non-custodial method of sentencing people who have been sentenced to 3 years or less for their crimes. If you take these people away from prison and successfully rehabilitate them without incarceration, then you cut the supply. No supply equals the end of the gang training regime on your tax dollars.
Under staffing (AV)
Self-explanatory. Provide a staffing level that meets the requirements and expectations the general public have for prisoner security in prisons.
Simple – up the staffing levels (and reduce the prison population).
With 25% of your prison population now back out on the street due to the earlier discussed measures, you can then undo what National did to prisons around the country without even having to build another fucking prison. In fact you could take a bulldozer to at least one of the prisons by my estimate, as well as the following:
- Single cells for all prisoners (get rid of the bunks!)
- One telephone per unit for every 10 prisoners (imagine living in a house with 88 people and one phone)
- Employ real medical staff rather than prison guards that know how to hand out pills
A note on Private Prisons
My one issue with Serco is that it is profiteering from misery. This in my view is almost as morally corrupt as purposeful overcrowding by government as a means of cost saving.
The UN Committee Against Torture actually identified these three areas I addressed in its latest report to the New Zealand Government, which the current minister of Corrections has soundly rejected.
Among other things, the report identified overcrowding, inadequate health services and over-representation of Maori in prisons.
Now you all have a better idea that all of that is true and have some ideas of how to fix this without building any new prisons.
These measures only address what the Justice System and Corrections can do to fix this issue.
You will always have high levels of crime and gangs while your society is so unfair to the less fortunate.
Get over it or do something about it.
Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara
Former political prisoner of Spring Hill Corrections Facility