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.
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.