My pulse quickened, as it always does, when I heard the first steel gate lock behind me. A cold trickle of sweat ran down my sides. I arrived at a scanning portal, fished out my ID and stepped through. A prison guard on the other side lounged in his chair, slowly got to his feet and looked me up and down like a piece of meat. The electronic wand he used to scan me more closely went off as it picked up on the steel shank in the instep of my boot. I removed them for inspection. He read the Italian label, smirked and then returned them to me, hanging on, just a moment too long as he passed them over, reminding me of who was in charge in the little slice of Hell they called Mount Eden Prison.
After going up the narrow stairway, I arrived at a shabby waiting area with narrow form seats against the wall. I approached the desks with the two chairs that contained lounging guards. Their fingers were loaded with the big chunky gold and ruby rings favoured by well-to-do gangsters. These guys were clearly privately wealthy for they were bejewelled to an extent that could not be supported by a humble prison guard trying to live off government wages in the Big City.
They continued talking, not bothering to look up or acknowledge me. Their conversation about the rugby eventually concluded and I was asked who I was there to see. I mentioned the name. He scanned a list, looked at his colleague with a barely contained smirk. “He’s not on the list,” he said. I told him I’d booked the visit days ago. He looked at me long and hard and slowly put his ringed index finger on the page and furrowed his brow as he looked down. He found the name, told me to sit down and wait before picking up on his rugby conversation.
After a few minutes he picked up the phone and told the person on the other end to bring my client through. After 15 minutes, I was gestured through, having been given a small black box with a red button on it. It was a “duress alarm” – I only had to press the button and the staff would rush to my assistance. He smirked, making me pause for a moment before he dropped it into my sweaty palm. The message couldn’t be more clear: my safety was in the hands of people who may well need to finish a conversation on sport before attending to the sudden violence that even lawyers sometimes experience when seeing clients in cells.
My client today was a nice man who I did not fear. Indeed I had greater concerns about the guards than I did him, an honest drug dealer who’d been caught up in a wiretap case and ultimately, would be sentenced to 20 years not long after.
He asked me if I’d heard the news. I flicked an eyebrow, indicating he should go on. He mentioned the name of a man, not knowing he was my client. He rattled through a list of contraband hidden behind a panel in his cell. The list began with half an ounce of P and progressed through two portable laptop-style DVD players, a dozen or so porno DVDs, a wealth of that universal prison currency – phone cards, two tattoo guns, a hammer, a hacksaw and, he said with a laugh, a dozen Farmer Brown eggs.
Initially I thought the naming of the brand of eggs was an embellishment. The initial Police disclosure hadn’t revealed the brand. But, a few days later when a better description arrived, sure enough, the eggs were indeed the product of Farmer Brown.
The man whose cell had been searched was a cleaner. His extensive history, known to the Prison authorities, revealed that he was a gangster with a very long criminal history. It was no surprise that he was a cleaner. This was a coveted job in the prison which allowed them to travel more widely within others. Everyone knew that cleaners had a greater opportunity to smuggle contraband within the prison. Whether it was mere communications or products, cleaners were the ones used to transport the goods around the prison.
But while it might have been a coveted position for some, for others there was no joy in being forced into being a courier. My standard advice to young clients was not to become a cleaner under any circumstances for, very quickly, they would be required to take on additional duties in an illicit trade.
So it was no surprise that a cleaner was found with such a stash, but I was left wondering what he had done to have his enterprise destroyed by the search which would see years added to the lengthy sentence that already loomed large in the crystal ball.
There was no doubt in my mind that the supposed usual methods blamed for introducing contraband into the prison weren’t being used. These DVD players had clearly not been smuggled in up lawyer’s bums, in the nappies of babies, the brassieres of loved ones or transferred, mouth-to-mouth with a kiss. Nor were these DVD players thrown from the motorway into the yard. Nor were they catapulted over the high stone wall.
A review of the case law in preparation for sentence revealed that possession of drugs in prison was seen as worse than possessing them on the outside. Rather than seeing prisoners as vulnerable captives whose addictions had been taken advantage of by unscrupulous guards, offending within the prison confines was seen as an aggravating feature. Prisoners, subject to a sentence, were expected to wring their hands in contrition and shun the evils of drugs while in prison.
A submission that it was a mitigating factor was met with raised eyebrows in the High Court. The judge was not enamoured of the idea, but listened with the diplomatic patience he was renowned for.
The case law relating to the importation of drugs mostly related to visitors bringing in small amounts, hidden within clothing. These were the people who no doubt fell foul of the searches conducted on entry. The diligent searches, I realised, enabled guards to turn their bejewelled hands upwards, demonstrating they were not the ones responsible for this trade. The pillorying of the mugs they caught enabled them to explain away the source of these drugs. Indeed a cynic might think that the odd mug being caught was all part of a scheme which enabled the main trade to flourish unabated.
The judge put his pen down and looked at me squarely as I talked about a vulnerable prisoner with addiction issues being put in the position of being a cleaner and, clearly, being supplied with contraband that could only be brought in by staff or a teleporter.
Sympathetic to the submission, but not wanting to push the boat out on this issue, a comparatively modest sentence was imposed with no uplift for the aggravating feature of offending within prison. And while there was no stated reduction for being preyed upon by staff, the modest sentence could be seen as an unwritten message that it had been taken into account.
The ancient stone prison was closed a few years ago, replaced by the shiny new Serco building. The staff now are more professional looking and scurry rapidly about their duties. But all that glistens is not golden and recent footage from Serco’s “fight club” reveal that contraband and even use of staff radios is going on. Given the footage and the history, I’m venturing that some of the worst villains there get to get home at night. The old culture is alive and well.
The lack of staff at Serco is evident to any lawyer who has tried to visit. After a drive from Whangarei for a visit, I remember once waiting for an hour before being told there simply weren’t enough staff to bring the prisoner to the interview room. Things have improved recently following many complaints by lawyers, some of who have told Courts that telepathy seems to be the best way to contact clients who were often inaccessible within the prison.
A lack of staff also, no doubt contributes to the unchecked violence that goes on within the prison, but when power-hungry video recorders and prison radios appear in the picture, there’s little doubt there’s more than just neglect going on.
During the course of the initial conversations about the Serco video footage, there was a cry about the presence of contraband and the organised fights. There was a risk of the baby getting thrown out with the bathwater and, indeed, the ministers Justice and Corrections are doing their best to obfuscate. “These are bad people,” came the cry from the Minister of Justice, forgetting, conveniently, that many of these men are on remand, innocent until proven guilty. The implicit message is that bad people deserve inhumane treatment.
The presence of a cellphone within the prison in actual fact has been a good thing here. Without prisoners filming what is going on within the prison, stories of Fight Club would be just that, stories. The presence of a joint in the prison has also been used to create a smokescreen where the Government would rather whip up anti-prisoner sentiment without reference to where these drugs may well have come from or recognition of how innocuous the humble weed is compared with systemic corruption.
The focus here needs to be on the bashed and dead prisoners who are the victims of the corrupt system. Nearly every day in Whangarei a lawyer is asked by a black-eyed prisoner to seek a short adjournment so that he’ll stay in the North’s Ngawha Prison rather than being shipped back to Serco where they will be beaten with impunity rather than afforded protection owed to people so vulnerable to systemic abuse.
Reinforcing the assertion that this is a systemic problem, no prisoner is willing to go on record about this. Life is tough enough without interfering with the commerce evident in Serco.
To blame the problem on privatisation is too simple, but there is no doubt that as workers’ pay diminishes in real terms as Auckland property prices rocket, the incentives for smugglers increase. There is no doubt that taking a profit from prisoners is a flawed model that will not improve prisoners’ lives nor reduce the misery in our communities.
Prisoners are not there to be profited from. Prisoners, rightly, should be a cost to society, for making money out of them is a culture that needs to be crushed rather than celebrated.
There are no simple answers, but it is the community that is hurt by offenders and it is the community that has an interest in successful rehabilitation. Serco is not part of our community. It’s a grubby multinational here in New Zealand to profit. It is not a model which promotes a reduction in prisoner numbers, but one which is dependent on a steady flow of new clients. Indeed, having built a prison, it has a legitimate expectation of continued business and would no doubt sue if the community’s desire for less crime and fewer prisoners became a reality. Serco passes the test of being a true parasite, for without the host it would die.
A culture of harm reduction flies directly in the face of Serco’s profit motive. I don’t care what the cost is of getting this cancer out of New Zealand. Nothing can compare with the human cost we all face when the private sector profits from prisoners. As Serco goes on the front foot, denying the harm and blaming the naught prisoners, the absence of the voices of victims is evident. No one within dares talk openly about it. They’re all too damn frightened. Meanwhile, Serco’s apologists are falling over themselves in an effort to further pillory the soft target prisoners represent.
A lockdown is in process at Serco and every cell is being turned over as a demonstration. But punishing those supplied will not hurt the suppliers. Punishing those inside will not help them speak out against the system which is so dangerous to them and, ultimately, us.