Government threatening free speech rights over prison protest leaflet

by Daphna Whitmore

The Department of Corrections has called in the police over a pamphlet that supports protests at Waikeria Prison, saying the material might incite another riot.

The oldest part of Waikeria Prison was set fire to by prisoners and destroyed January 2021

The group People Against Prisons Aotearoa denies it advocates for riots and has said it “encourages persistent, peaceful protest action such as striking from prison work, before describing the “extreme radical action” taken at Waikeria Prison as successful.”

The Free Speech Coalition spokesperson and lawyer Stephen Franks has strongly criticised the government action against PAPA. Franks argues that suppressing the leaflet and treating it as punishable speech makes the Government unfit to govern a democracy. “Thinking New Zealand should be fearful. If that pamphlet is the measure of ‘incitement to violence’ we can expect their coming hate speech laws to disregard centuries of painful experience. Years of struggle, under threats of disorder far more real than now,  gave us the definitions that have protected our rights to protest, to expose government ruthlessness, heartlessness and abuses of power.”

Party politics are at play too with Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis accusing Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi​ of “irresponsible behaviour” as he is quoted in the leaflet repeating Thomas Jefferson’s call to action “When injustice becomes law, defiance becomes duty”.

I don’t support PAPA’s prison abolition programme which downplays the needs of victims, pays little regard to women’s safety, and glosses over the reality that there are violent criminals who are well beyond suitable for ‘restorative justice’. There are humane alternatives far better thought out than those promoted by PAPA. But those are discussions for society to have and PAPA has every right to put their case without police or government harassment.