Waikeria – dignity and respect still missing 38 years later


I spent four days as a sentenced prisoner at Waikeria Prison in 1983* and while four days isn’t enough for a deep insight into how a prison institution runs, it was plenty of time to see and experience the values which underpin its operation.

From the time you arrive to be strip searched and have your clothes taken to be replaced by wholly inadequate and ill-fitting prison garb – an orange T-shirt and light-weight denim jacket along with open-toed sandals in the middle of a Waikato winter – it is clear you are something other than human. I was kept in my cell for 23 hours each day and allowed out into a small exercise yard – about 6m by 3m for an hour a day. An hour spent walking up and down waiting for the sun to creep down the wall so I could defrost my toes and warm my body.

The daily routines are disrespectful and dehumanising – and designed to be so. The way you are spoken to with barked orders, the way you are fed, the making of your bed with the red thread of the grey blanket needing to be perfectly centred on the made bed, the removal of belts to be hung on the outside cell door at night, the use of chocolate bars as prison currency, the seatless toilet in your cell…

Waikeria was set up as a youth prison reflecting the attitudes and values of British youth prisons as portrayed in the brilliant 1962 film The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (based on the short story by Alan Sillitoe) Their operation is based on the bizarre, and long-disproven, belief that dehumanising people will make them change their behaviour and rehabilitate themselves.

Needless to say our prisons are not designed to rebuild broken lives – in so many cases lives shattered by the state itself through abuse in state care and abysmal levels of mental health care – but is designed to appeal to wider societal attitudes of self-righteous victim-blaming stirred along by self-serving politicians.

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The list of complaints from the Waikeria prisoners spell out that they are not being treated with dignity or respect and it is clear nothing has changed in 38 years.

Dehumanisation and disrespect are still an essential part of the prison our prison system.
And this same strategy is being followed by prison authorities now in the latest uprising at Waikeria – withhold water and food to starve the prisoners into submission.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Bill English called our prisons and their ballooning prisoner numbers “a moral and fiscal failure” but unfortunately, we lack politicians with courage or leadership to take on the big challenge to change. Both Labour and National are hostage to their own demonisation of prisoners, their “get tough on law and order” rhetoric and their pandering to the crypto racists of the so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust.

The long road of prison reform begins by treating prisoners with dignity and respect. Let’s insist we start.

*I was at Waikeria after being sentenced to six weeks jail as part of 42 people convicted for being on Rotorua airport runway to block the Springbok rugby team plane from landing in 1981. I appealed and the prison sentence was changed to periodic detention and a fine.


  1. The problem you have is that attitudes like dignity, respect, compassion and kindness come from a well of energy that is rapidly running dry.
    Ask any parent how well disposed to misbehavior from their kids they are after a wearying day at work and a mind full of money worries.
    No Mr Minto it’s over. An increasing number will demand more efficiency and less indulging.
    Better restricted water and meals than rubber bullets or the really hard ones.

  2. Well said, John.

    I’m not holding my breath for any genuine decency or compassion from our fake leader, Jacinda. As as self-serving liar, she will continue to be all words and no action on things that matter, and will continue kick the neoliberal can down the road for as long as she can….which obviously won’t be for much longer, since neoliberalism is a self-defeating system and is in the process of collapsing.

    By the way, I too was abused by the state for doing the right thing; in my case drawing attention to Peak Oil and Abrupt Climate Change and the dehumanising effects of rampant consumerism. For that I was locked up in Auckland Police Station, given no water, put in a cell with vomit that had not been cleaned up….and charged on trumped-up charges that fell over in court when police officers lied and it was obvious to the judge they were lying. And that was after a shambolic court process in which the court official didn’t even have the correct information on the notification board.

    The whole legal system is a business, geared to keeping a huge swag of people employed, and making salaries/profits whilst failing to address anything fundamental. Just like the government.

    • The problem with vomit in police cells is the cleaners often don’t start work until 4am, and people spew all hours, and on all surfaces, and up walls too, and spread faeces as well, but that cleaner needs her sleep because chances are she’s working two jobs, and whether police officers have the time, or should be expected to clear up vomit I don’t know – I think community cops do or did some of their own cleaning. They need tiled automated sluice systems – but cops do deliver some young drunks home to mummy.

      Expect all these issues to be sorted when the penal system and the police force are both privatised.

      • I was moved from a cell that had no vomit into one that had vomit. Deliberately.

        I take that as ‘teaching me a lesson’.

        It did. About the nature of the Auckland police.

        Interestingly, the Manukau police were not bothered by my environmental action, and one officer actually assisted me at one point and warned me the Auckland police might not be as tolerant. They obviously has a reputation for nastiness. And they lived up to it.

    • I have to say, as hard as I try, I’m coming round to your opinion of Jacinda even though I can see how (to use the buzz) her life choices and circumstances seem to have built her that way. I’m still not quite sure though how to explain the likes of Kelvin Davis or Sepuloni.
      At first I thought it could just be they had malfunctioning bullshit detectors, but it isn’t just that.
      And that commenter above you seems content with the trend towards the lowest common denominator.
      Better rusty water and starvation, AND the lying and PR bullshit from ‘officials’ apparently than rubber bullets.
      “……… compassion and kindness come from a well of energy that is rapidly running dry” (oh well, too bad, never mind apparently). Let’s hear it when his kids – probably possessions or ego extensions – turn out complete fuckups
      I wonder how, and even IF he worries about the loss of confidence globally in democracies which seem to be quite happy in brutalising people and have become so fucking arrogant they don’t even consider their might eventually be a bit of a backlash. If we’re not careful, that will be the way that lil ‘ole NuZuln that punches above its weight has to justify itself.
      But back to the politicians …. they’ve lost the handbrake, so it’s hard to know what’s causing any sort of drag on progress, transformation and kindness. Maybe its just that their wheel bearings and CV joints are completely fucked due to lack of maintenance and looking for cost cutting savings (in that space, going forward), and there’s a need to prioritise the payment of the masters-of-the-universe’s salaries – because apparently they’ve performed so astoundingly.

      • Tim, It’s a big ask expecting someone like Ardern to be clued up about the reality of the impact of deprivation or poverty, let alone ‘ child povidy’. She has all the buzz words and communication skills . Sepuloni, time and again, looked discomforted when questioned about policy, or lack of policy.

        Kelvin Davis is a patently good decent bloke, and I’d be hugely surprised if he evolved into the sort of expert liar which today’s lot need to be to survive in their chosen calling. Don’t forget he’s worked with kids as a teacher, and I think as a headmaster, and he has to be reasonably grounded in societal dynamics.

        It must be very disillusioning for politicians who do have a social conscience, to find themselves stymied by the ambition of the self-serving, but that tacky couple
        of damp Nats who turned up at Waikeria with absolutely nothing to offer, are a reminder that the alternatives are no better, unfortunately.

        There’s a bigger picture going on here, possibly privatisation of prisons and the police, the way that other countries may be heading, with middle-class wokies jumping on righteous band-wagons, police officers being routinely shot at, govt depending as usual on good people in NGO’s to work at the initiatives which they should be undertaking themselves- and which suits them just fine.

        • Maybe we should just send these gangs around to your place for a barbecue and singalong, you seem to have all the buzz words.

  3. You were out after an appeal in four days ? Does justice still work this fast ? It,s hard to understand a system that I,ve never been involved in. Cheers, Keith

  4. You deserved to go to prison, you were attempting to block an airplane from landing putting the lives at risk of everybody on that plane. You should of protested outside of the airport.
    Imagine if your protest had been successful and the plane unable to land had run out of fuel and crashed, killing everyone onboard.
    If you don’t want to go to prison, don’t commit a crime, how hard is it not to murder, rape or assault someone? Society is not asking for much when it expects civilised behaviour, it is very simple really if you do not want to be locked up in a cage, do not behave like an animal.
    Typical of you leftists though, you care more about the villian than you do about the victim.

    • Yeah – this sounds like a worthy contender for an ignorant fuckwittery award Stephen. Slagging off a person who successfully raised the humanitarian credentials of NZ internationally, when he knew that the personal costs would probably outweigh the results is a low blow. Protest outside the airport? That would have been about as useful as a protest as pissing against the wall of the terminal building when no-one was around. People being killed because the plane ran out of fuel – have you lost your marbles? However, that is not as bad as the insinuation that Minto is guilty of murder, rape and assault, or was that just an example of your lack of basic language skills. Your final comment though is a real doozie. Did you not realise that the subjects of your final pathetic abusive statement played a recognised role in ending Apartheid in South Africa. That ended the reign of a multitude of villains.
      What did you ever do to justify a even a fleeting suspicion that you may possess any moral or humanitarian values?

      • I never insinuated that John was guilty of murder, rape or assault. He did deserve to go to prison for the harm his stunt could of caused. Also don’t flatter John for his protests because that’s all he seems to do.
        As for bad language skills, are you not the one who named called and swore, seems like you have the bad language skills.

        • In you first comment, you started by writing, “Imagine if your protest had been successful and the plane unable to land had run out of fuel and crashed, killing everyone onboard.” in reference to John Minto. You then continued with, “If you don’t want to go to prison, don’t commit a crime, how hard is it not to murder, rape or assault someone?” There is the logical conclusion as to what was written. Hence the question, “….was that just an example of your lack of basic language skills.” Please note, the word used was ‘basic’ not ‘bad’. Reframing is not advisable if you want to make a point.
          As for swearing, the word ‘fuckwittery’ is in common usage so if it offends you, so be it. You are entitled to take offence at accepted current language usage, but it seems a bit pedantic to make an issue of it.
          In regard to, “….are you not the one who named called….” it is suggested you re-read read what was written. There was certainly criticism of what you wrote, but nowhere in the comment is there any name calling. The same might not be true of your statement, “Typical of you leftists though, you care more about the villian than you do about the victim.”
          You have now made the statement, “Also don’t flatter John for his protests because that’s all he seems to do.” It is suggested that you could easily have done some research instead of making a demonstrably shallow assumption. John Minto has had a number notable achievements in addition to his successes as a human rights campaigner. Please don’t be offended if there are doubts as to your levels of success in comparison with those of the person you chose to demean. Any ignorance on the part of this commenter results from your failure to enlighten as per the final question of the previous comment.

    • I don’t see anywhere that John is saying he didn’t deserve what he got.

      Civil disobedience when the State no longer takes action is what everyone should be doing. I was all in favour of several hundred cars parking outside the PMs house, Key at the time in an $8m mansion, when people started living in cars in the land of milk and honey. Oh sure the forces would come out and move you on, but then the whole world has seen this. Frankly you do this and the cameras will be there and the whole world will be watching. When overseas no one believed that there were families in this country living in cars, it is seen as such a wonderful country.

      You seem to have little understanding of why people go to prison. You have simply talked about the more extreme stuff

      ‘If you don’t want to go to prison, don’t commit a crime, how hard is it not to murder, rape or assault someone?’.

      If you have serious mental health issues, probably quite hard.

      I assume that you have never ever broken the law then, never gone over the speed limit…..

      The big problem is sending people to prison for stupid mistakes or outright stupid reasons. These people should be out cleaning the rivers and doing all the maintenance that is needed across the country!

      • “If you have serious mental health issues, probably quite hard.”

        Very well said and why the Waikeria 100 bed mental health unit is being built, yet such is the intellect the likes of Stephen, society will struggle to change. However we have inherited serious criminals which should never have occurred such was the weakness of John Key wanting to bed his Australian counterpart.

  5. Your totalitarian bullshit is rather tedious 44South. I would hate to be one of your children: “Didn’t tidy your room?! Off with your head”.
    Prisoners remain human, and thus must have their rights respected if human rights are to mean anything. Do you seriously condone the torture of NZ citizens?

    • Not to mention the punishment for the crime they have been judged guilty of is loss of freedom and liberty! …not isolation, not crap food, not no or bad water, not harsh living conditions, not brutal treatment by guards or other inmates…..

      How bad do people want the criminals treated before they get out and return the favour?

  6. The N Z prison system may be the pits, but this doesn’t mean that all its inhabitants deserve to be treated with
    respect. Civility, perhaps.

    Civility is as far as I’d extend myself for rapists, drug pushers, men who smash babies heads’ against walls, wife beaters, and pedophiles who I’d be relaxed about seeing executed. Others get to be MP’s.

    The cats on the roof top were not choir boys. They’re law breakers of one sort or another, and all of a sudden
    they’re victims, speaking with papal infallibility, and every word that they say is accepted as truth, and all the law compliers are the baddies.

    – Bad mannered jailers may be little more than more WINZ victims shoved into the crummy jobs which nobody wants, and no more endowed with social graces than any other Kiwi male.

    • Words @snowwhite.
      And part of the neo-lib agenda is to corrupt the language convincing us that black is white and white is black.

      You won’t get me to respect arseholes either or even be civil to them. Doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be treated as human beings or even part of the animal kingdom – in much the same way I’m coming to see many populist politicians as lying arseholes with blood on their hands. I could make an exception for Trump though and his worshippers. Geese and ganders, pots and kettles – and even woks

  7. John that was 1983 and we have had privatisation since then we has re enforced the the conditions you talk about.
    Dehumanisation has moved out of the prisons and spread to many poor and working poor communities with neo liberal policies creating a kind of state controlled incarceration for many. You don’t need to be a guest of her majesty to suffer the same cruel indignities and have your rights legislated away by the same people every three years promising brighter futures , a decent society and we are moving in the right direction so don’t put it all at risk and who can forget freedom and prosperity for all.
    The only thing i ever heard Bill English not lie about was his statement about our incarceration rate was “a moral and fiscal failure” but he came to that conclusion far to late and maybe just for a minute had a sudden flash of realisation that the neo liberal approach was what had been the real failure.

  8. According to the Corrections Act 2004:

    Every prisoner has the following minimum entitlements:
    (a) physical exercise.
    (b) a bed and bedding.
    (c) food and drink.
    (d) access to private visitors.
    (e) access to statutory visitors and specified visitors.
    (f) access to legal advisers.
    (g) to receive medical treatment.
    (h) to send and receive mail.
    (i) to make outgoing telephone calls.
    (j) to exercise any right conferred on prisoners by regulations made under this Act to communicate using any specified device or medium of communication.
    (k) access to information and education.

    Those are the basic rights. No torture. No lack of toilet paper. Not ok to end bedding and laundry service of food. When a riot or similar disturbance breaks out, the Prison Manager can withold these minimum entilements for 2 days. That can be overuled at any time by a Visiting Justice. It can also be overuled by The Chief Executive of Corrections, and the Minister can direct the Chief executive to de-escalate a situation.

    That didn’t happen in the case of Waikeria. Laws were broken both before and after the riots, and the Minister did not step in when they should. I don’t give two fat fucks if these guys are murderers, child eaters, or anything else to fire your tiny imagination. We have the law, we are restrained by the law for excellent moral reasons and sound intellectual reasoning, but for some in the “tough on crime” scene, the law only only suits when it is able to bypassed. They prefer the will of the Mob. Ironic.

    As for people still fighting in favour of Aparteid in 2021, jeezus H christ. Can they just be banned straight out? Do they have any idea what they are supporting? Lynchings. Burnings. Torture. Mutilations. Rapes. Murders. Just ban them.

    • “That didn’t happen in the case of Waikeria. Laws were broken both before and after the riots ………. ”
      Ah well, there ya go. They were broken by officials, so that doesn’t count.

      Have to say what really got me was when Kelvin Davis said the prisoners’ behaviour was “unacceptable” -almost parroting the words of the illustrious Jeremey Lightfoot. Yet another parachuted in from the Empire.
      Has anyone else checked out his CV btw?
      As if we (little old NuZuln that punches above its weight) doesn’t have better suited candidates.

  9. Capitalism,exchange the cost, of what, selling our governance of penal servitude, that our laws produce of our social governance. By our governing, selling our control to govern our social disorder of our rule laws that say.

  10. I know this is politically incorrect on thedailyblog but I worked for Corrections. The very odd prisoner did not deserve to be there but I did NOT want many as neighbors. Corrections staff try hard in sometimes impossible conditions. Prisoners rip up bedding, scribble walls with graffiti, break everything possible. The cut off sleeves and legs of track suits, stand in your face to threaten and beat each other up. Being a Corrections Officer takes maturity, inner strength and a good sense of humour. I did 11 years, no one took a swing at me and 99% of the time I loved it. There were times when the small voice in my head said “holy crap, this is not the place to be! Staff go sick if they are scared, there are never enough staff “on the floor.” The law says you can’t unlock without the minimum number of staff. Prisoners get fed in cells, their hours out get reduced.
    The solution?
    More, better paid staff. Less law breakers so less are sentenced. Prisoners less in love with the outlaw idea, less inclined to join the gangs, more inclined to change behaviour and to get out of bed and go to work. Less inclined to beat up, strangers, their associates, girlfriends and children.
    I wish Father Christmas and

    • Nic – Your comment, “not want many as neighbours”, resonates well. That’s how I tend to gauge politicians, and the glib are among the first I’d sideline. Chris Finlayson could have been good value – hugely articulate and intelligent with it – Key, plain hopeless- and couldn’t even hit a nail with a hammer – Bradford, genuinely passionate about our kids, and that’s a bottom line for me. Obviously Rod Donald, Jeanette Fitzsimmons, Norm Kirk, Fran Wilde – I knew her daughter – and another Labour chappie who may still be on the Wellington Regional Council, whose clinic I visited and organised others to, and it was all good, and I forget his name- Bill Young, solid on Wgtn Town Belt issues, and genuinely pleasant, and latterly Andy Foster, Wgtn Mayor and almost certainly honest – another bottom line.

      I donated about ten books for remand prisoners in a cop-initiated scheme which has probably fallen through. I recall only two, Obama’s autobiography – not a hard read – and one beautifully illustrated junior reader, with a simple story line, set in New Zealand native bush, which I’d have otherwise hung onto at home.

      The four books of which I learned the fate were trashed, or used to trash. One was ripped up and used to block a lavatory, another dismembered and attached to a light fitting and/ or used to cover a peep hole. Central city remand prisoners could be a mixed sort of grouping, but it was disappointing – stepping into another dimension, and I felt a bit sorry for the cop – if that’s ok – I doubt he’d have just imposed them on the prisoners, but I might try and follow that up.

  11. Profit abuse of you us, capitalism its greed profit exploit, is us you dare you question dare, join the union.

  12. Carlton hotel Wellington, friday night,Satuardy rugby test, grab my friend the red squad,cause saying don!t do that,he you Kiwi!s ever knowing about this government police red squad, of course not history exclude forget, no, truth hear i have a scare on my lip from their baton, Muldoon,saying play rugby yes we will.
    Unionism, is your b

  13. Like many others I spent my childhood years going to school at times with a hungry belly, in bare feet at primary school and later in sandals and hand me downs at high school. At no stage during my formative years did I consider burning down my school in protest at my situation

  14. A superb Post @ JM and I stand beside you in complete support.
    Some time ago I read a, I think BBC report, on a modern and revolutionary experiment held in a Spanish prison whereby prisoners, regardless of their crimes, were ‘managed’ with care and were given a high level of hotel-like comfort and treated with respect until their release.
    To many, the surprising result of that experiment was that recidivism all but stopped amongst the prisoners who were able to be released back into the wild. AKA ‘society’.
    To argue, for instance, that respect must be earned is a simple minded logical fallacy because if the prisoner has no literal concept of ‘respect’ then how are they going to try and earn it?
    When one’s life has been nothing but hardship, abuse and neglect then what remains of the human spirit to cause the burglar to stop and pause to think of the impact his or her actions will have on his soon-to-be victim/s ? Fuck all would be my opinion.
    I know, I know… Anyone who’s been burgled wants to find the burglar and hang the bastard/s up by what ever part of the anatomy that can be tied to the end of a length of rope and it’s perfectly natural and normal to feel that way. But surely as a socially advanced people we’ve evolved beyond that? I’d think by now our politic must protect us against our own inclinations towards savagery? Because if we don’t have a neutral politic that’s motivated by common sense and intellect based upon research conducted by educated individuals then what do we have? Craven psychopaths like the SST for a start is my observation.
    AO/NZ prisons are brutal and manifestly torture based systems used against those who are themselves damaged and forsaken.

    • All very well and noble CB. The Scandinavian system is similar I believe.
      The point I was trying to make with my first comment is that those systems and even our own, come at a cost, a huge cost.
      Our prison and punishment for crimes system didn’t “soften”by comparison to say 1820, because some of Martyns better angels came into the hearts of our ancestors, it changed because we got more affluent and the theft of a loaf of bread or a horse wasn’t as serious.
      That happened primarily because of the internal combustion engine, coupled with a hydraulic ram last century,it changed the world. Including our prisons.
      But now it’s killing us and the system it created is collapsing.
      When it does, the health and well-being of those who do not obey rules designed for the greater good will not be a priority.
      And that is not a preference but simply a reality.

  15. It was now exploited by Maori for the sake of calling the corrections service racist and so, no matter what. Everything is racist these days, no matter whether there are logical scientific reasons for the injustices, not necessarily based on heritage and race, but the agenda works, to make it all a RACE issue now.

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