Dr Liz Gordon – Keeping people in


One of my frequent raves about the justice system is the story of how our prisons came to wrap themselves around in high, razor wire fences in the 1990s.  In other countries, such fences are usually found only on high security prisons, but here they surround all of our prisons. I have campaigned over time to rip most of them down.

Now, one does not have to envisage how these high fences came to be built. As the fencing gets higher and higher outside our isolation and quarantine hotels, we can see that it is driven by fear that infected people will escape and contaminate our community.

I have been wondering why people are bothering to escape.  The assumption is that they are bloody-minded rascals. But that might not be true.  The man they have come down hardest on, Mr McVicar, left the hotel to get some wine and beer.

When I am staying in a hotel for a few days, I usually pop down to the supermarket and get a few supplies, including wine.  Kiwis hate paying hotel prices, don’t we?  So the only thing wrong or unusual about this person’s behaviour is that he cut some ties in the fence to get through, and was barred from leaving voluntarily.

So I wondered what that meant. Was there no other ways he could get the cheaper alcohol he desired?  Are there volunteers shopping for people with needs? Can shops deliver?

Something that one of the ministers said gave me pause. The comment was made that people in quarantine get an allocation of alcohol.  I don’t know how that works but would like to know. If they are, say, allowed 1-2 drinks a night, but no more, that could be a problem for some.  If the only offering is hotel booze at hotel prices, which they must pay for, that is a problem. In either case, the application of emergency rules to limit alcohol supply or consumption is very problematic.  These people have returned home, not committed a crime.

My friend Roger Brooking, in a blog, suggested that isolation may be particularly hard for alcoholics, and dangerous too.  With their alcohol supply cut off abruptly, people can go into a dangerous withdrawal.

The ramping up of security makes me extremely uncomfortable.  I disagree that the four (I think it is four, I have lost count) absconders should be treated as criminals.   They are people whose stories need to be heard for the purpose of ensuring that the dreary process of isolation is lightened as much as possible. 

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I am horrified that some lovely hotels look to be headed to prison status.  Next they will bring in the razor wire and spotlights. There must be a better way.


Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society.  She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.


  1. When the media and National clamber from the rafters everytime there is an “escape” and when the security is ramped up, the Government is accused of being to strict, no one wins.

    I have yet to hear the opposition’s alternative response. To use a rugby analogy, its like everyone saying a particular All black should be dropped but don’t offer a replacement. It helps no one.

  2. Of course some will abscond, it’s human; as a repeat recidivist smoker, I know of addiction issues; for alcohol addicts it’s worse; some may not know or realise that they’re alcoholics, and could be at risk without adequate and affordable supplies. Claustrophobia is real too.

    Returnees know quarantine is necessary; a permanent professional help service needs to be made available for those who struggle to cope – as well as spelling out beforehand that there will be penalties for absconding and putting the community at risk. Perhaps libraries made available as an effective alternative reality for readers – people would donate books – I would – so would the Sallies.

    My hairdresser suggested putting low-risk prison inmates into the quarantine facilities, and returnees
    into the prisons. This would have the added advantage of educating people about the barbarity of the prison system.

    It’s more than an ambulance-chasing press and dirty politics issue, it’s our future, and the country’s future, and by and large most people have responded well; help available for those who struggle is a no-brainer.

  3. Prisons are horrible, archaic places and how we can pretend we’re a modern, civilised country while we also lock people away who break laws of the state and/or laws against humanity? That, in my opinion, is simply justifiably torturing people and those who enable that torture must get something dark out of it, otherwise it wouldn’t be happening.
    Who’s worse then? A person who does a thing that’s universally condemned and generally regarded as a ‘crime’ worthy of punishment, and usually that’s imprisonment, or us for getting a frisson for knowingly causing someone great distress often for years and years and years.
    Torturing people for the crimes they commit isn’t curative. In fact, it more often than not does more harm than good. It certainly isn’t humanist and empathetic.
    Years ago, I read a piece on a experimental prison in Spain where criminals were nabbed then treated far better than they’d ever been treated before in their lives. Sure, they couldn’t just wander off but while they were imprisoned they had hotel like accomodation, good food, etc and all the trappings of a comfortable life.
    They were able to get jobs that paid equally as well as people on the outside and could choose to be educated or trained.
    It was interesting to note, that when the prisoners of that particular experiment were eventually released they never came back t prison. Recidivism fell to an all time low.
    I read that a long time ago and I can’t find links to that particular article for some reason?
    Maybe the Sensible sentencing trust nutters could source it and post it here? Do something useful for a change.
    And while they’re at it, they could investigate just why Portugal’s illegal drug policies are working better than could be foreseen? ( There’s now good drugs everywhere! Joke. )
    Is funny. We’re all about America. America this and American that. Hardly a word about the Scandi countries or the Mediterranean’s.
    I laughed when I read that Johnny Depp, now living in France, described America as being a big dumb dangerous puppy dog. His comment came back to bite him on the arse as he’s currently being dragged through the British courts.
    It’s all a bit of a hoot, really.

    • countryboy – One of the sobering things cited recently by retiring MP Anne Tolley, is that the majority of inmates in New Zealand prisons, are graduates of state care – that’s where most of them spent their earlier lives, under the auspices of the state. Clearly, we have got things very wrong in this country, and we keep doing it over and over again, and doing it knowingly.

      A justice system which creates the conditions likely to project a child into a life of crime, then punishes them for it, is worse than morally bankrupt, it’s very sick.

      • If the majority of inmates are graduates of state care then you could say that poverty is a major factor in determining who ends up in prison. The reasons for that poverty could be written in a big book with a myriad of self justifying excuses offered to excuse the actions of those suffering poverty but the simple fact remains that some people have enough self control/ability to move to a better life that does not require state support. While the media are happy to condemn those on benefits involved in anti social activity there is a lack of scrutiny of those from the successful side of society who also require state support. The accommodation supplement, healthcare, retirement homes, justice etc are all dependent on state support yet often do not seem to have any public good motive at all.

        • Bonnie I’m saying that prison further damages people already damaged by being in state care in their precious young formative years.

          Poverty is just one factor – some children of the poor – like John A Lee – go on to help the poor – others join the National Party to help themselves, but some traumatised persons are simply too damaged to have the self control/ability to make the choices even in their own best interests.

          The ideal is to try and stop that initial damage from occuring – and not compounding it when it does.

          Much has been published on all this, not enough acted upon.

    • The culture of a country forms slowly particularly when colonisation is involved.

      NZ has done it wrong and our incarceration rate quite high with about 10,000 in prison.
      Rehab programs are near to non existent and NACT privatised the running of some prisons cementing the harm done to the inmates.

      Prison is a culture we can well do without.
      There are a few dangerous people who need to be kept away from society but not humanity.
      Prison is a crime school where inmate get more twisted that before they went in.

  4. Thanks Liz, you’re not wrong about the razor wire, spotted it at Taupo Pack & Save this weekend, remarked to my wife that it was not something that we should have in this country! We have slipped down a very slippery slope in this country in the last thirty years.

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