Reflections after Waikeria incident

by Don Franks

For five days over New Year weekend, sixteen prisoners in the archaic pre-WW1 block of Waikeria Prison defied authorities by setting fires and occupying the building’s roof. They eventually agreed to surrender after intervention from Maori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi.

Waikeria prison on fire

A message from the protesting men had stated: “Our drinking water in prison is brown. We have used our towels for three straight weeks now. Some of us have not had our bedding changed in five months. We have not received clean uniforms to wear for three months – we wear the same dirty clothes day in and day out. We have to wash our clothes in our dirty shower water and dry them on the concrete floor. We have no toilet seats: we eat our kai out of paper bags right next to our open, shared toilets.”

Silent throughout the protest, Labour government Minister of Corrections Davis at its end accused the men of “reckless criminal acts”.

“There are many legitimate avenues for prisoners to raise concerns about their conditions, including through the independent Corrections Inspectorate and the Office of the Ombudsman.

“These prisoners used none of those avenues and never raised any issues prior to this event.”

In fact a widely-circulated  report last year following a surprise visit from the Ombudsman had found issues with clothing and bedding, ventilation and sanitation in cells, poor access to cleaning supplies, and problems with the general size and state of the cells. 

Below is a personal reflection on New Zealand jails.

Prison. My happy memory it is forty years back, locked up in Lower Hutt with Tom Poata and another guy I can’t quite recall the name of. After a particularly chaotic anti-apartheid demonstration several of us were arrested to spend the night and face charges the next day. Hot, sweaty, completely stuffed, no cigarettes and with only hard benches to sit on till morning. Tom beamed around our ragged company as if he’d just won the Lotto. “But wasn’t it worth it eh?”

Along with overnight stays in the police cells for anti-apartheid and anti-Vietnam war protests, I’ve had just two prison visits. First in 1972. The cops came round to the flat, said I had unpaid fines and time was up. I’d thought someone had paid them for me and said so, but with no more ceremony we were suddenly all in a van, heading up to Mount Crawford. It was a lovely sunny day and I didn’t care much, until we arrived. At the door of the prison the cops’ demeanor seemed to change, they suddenly hardened up and delivered me to prison officers who were hard already. Frogmarched into a cell, I was told to strip all my clothes off. Then sat naked in a chair alone for a while until a barber came in and roughly hacked most of my long hair. After which I remained for a longer period in a pool of hair, three officers then entered and dumped down some disinfectant reeking clothes. They stood over me breathing hard: “Put on the shirt” shouted one; “Put on the pants,” shouted another at the same time. I fumbled unnerved until I got the gear on and was finally left quivering in the mess of my hair until I was saved. Another officer came in sometime later with a worried look on his face. “I’m afraid there’s been a mistake Mister Franks. You’re free to leave, your friends are waiting outside in the car.”

It was not till 1994 that I went inside the walls again. My mate Judith was set to do a two-week creative writing course at Manawatu jail and they wanted a song writing component. “But Judith, I don’t know how to teach song writing!” “Don, it’s easy.  A pop song is basically just one good strong line, with some other supporting words and a bit of a beat.” I needed the money so went along with her to the gig. My group of students were apparently all doing long stretches, they looked pretty tough. Guitar at the ready, I smiled around the unsmiling company and said, “Well guys, thanks for having me out here for the songwriting course. Now, a song is mainly one line…” The toughest looking guy of the lot leaned back in his chair, looking me up and down.“Is that right? Well, I’ve got a fucking line. Jail Sucks. Make a song out of that!” The rest of them nodded agreement and smiled over at their mate.  Then glanced casually at me and waited. Years in the music business had taught me ways to cheat. I said ok, that’s a good line and made it into a twelve bar blues. The guys looked to their leader, the kingpin guy beamed happily because his line had been good enough material to prompt an instant song, so we went on to have a good productive course. But the worst moment for me came later on that first day. At noon the lunch was wheeled in, the prisoners fell on it ravenously. I took one glance at the rancid fatty mess and pretended to go out and have a smoke.

Brief glimpses inside New Zealand prisons were quite enough for me, never mind serving a sentence of years. Being a prison officer must be a bloody awful job too, being in these depressing places week in and week out, in charge of angry people with various mental health issues. People, some of them, brought up in areas of generational poverty, written off by every agency, failed by a society that just rolled over them.

Yes, of course, there’s a need to contain violent psychotic offenders and anti-social behaviour. Calls on the government to abolish prisons here and now are just posturing in the face of the problem. But several issues raised by the recent prison riots have been the lot of New Zealand prisoners for decades. It’s wrong to just put the lid back on and perpetuate the same system. A conference of interested and knowledgeable parties on radical prison reform is long overdue. It’d be a humane way to ensure 2021 is a better year than the last one.

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