New Zealand: Waikeria protests put a spotlight on prison conditions

While the protests at Waikeria shine a light on prisoner conditions, abuses of power and inhumane treatment in prison are not new and will continue until prisoner numbers significantly reduce.

The recent six-day Waikeria protest highlighted problems at that prison, but it is not unique.

The December Ombudsman’s report on Auckland Prison at Paremoremo similarly identified poor cell ventilation, evening meals served as early as 2.30pm and 3.30pm, prisoners locked up in cells 22–23 hours a day, and an average of three minutes a day of rehabilitation for prisoners in Units 12 and 13.

Staff shortages affected the drug-testing of prisoners, cell lock-up hours, and prisoner access to education, rehabilitation and reintegration. In 2019, staff turnover was 12.2 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 2016, and during the eight-day inspection the prison had three different people in its director role.

At Paremoremo, new issues were documented. Some staff did not turn on body cameras when force was used on prisoners until after the event. Only 65 percent of these incidents had footage saved. Discrepancies occurred between footage and staff reporting.

In one example, “[a]lthough footage showed that the prisoner immediately obeyed the order, he was nonetheless pepper sprayed whilst on his knees, with his hands fully visible behind his back… the incident report (as well as a prisoner misconduct report) did not reflect what my inspectors saw in the footage they reviewed”.

Bullying and intimidation of prisoners by staff were noted and “appeared to centre on several of the same custodial staff”. Sixty-two percent and 56 percent of survey respondents in Units 5 and 12 respectively reported victimisation by staff. Concerns were raised regarding the use of derogatory language, with one prisoner saying: “I have been called faggot, puffta, mofi, bitch, big cock, nothing but a man in a frock etc by staff.”

Problems accessing PC01 complaint forms were reported, although difficulty making a complaint in prison is not uncommon. Seventy-seven percent of prisoners surveyed at Waikeria indicated a lack of faith in the complaints system, as did 83 percent and 84 percent at Paremoremo and Auckland South respectively.

Paremoremo prisoners commented that: “You’re not allowed to ask or receive PC01 forms”; “I feel if I make a complaint I will be sent to the maximum security block”; and “staff make out like it’s narking or you’re weak if you make a complaint or seek petty retribution”.

Most complaints related to staff but this was only ascertained after inspectors found complaints had not been properly categorised. Recategorisation identified almost a third related to “staff conduct and attitude” (29 percent).

Abuses of power and inhumane treatment in prison are not new. At Mangaroa Prison, staff beat three prisoners over three days in 1993. In Paparua Prison, the Emergency Response Unit (known as the “goon squad”) was disbanded in 2000 amid complaints of prisoner mistreatment. The Supreme Court 2006 Taunoa decision documented Auckland prisoners who were subjected to a severe regime of solitary confinement where watches and radios were not allowed in cells and toilet paper was rationed “to provide a proper incentive to inmates to use it properly”.

At Waikeria, the antiquated condition of cells made for single occupants, but accommodating two people, was the prime problem. Corrections’ response to both Inspectorate and Ombudsman’s reports referred to the new prison under construction as the panacea. At Paremoremo, a brand-new maximum security unit was opened in July 2018 - 18 months before the Ombudsman’s inspection.

This is not the problem of a prison block built in 1911. As the Ombudsman wrote, the new unit promised a shift “from an operating model based on ‘containment’ … to a modern, therapeutic facility”. He noted that despite the new facility the prison culture had not changed; the shift to a model of “‘rehabilitation and reintegration’ is yet to be realised”.

The Waikeria incident has usefully put a spotlight on prison conditions, but such problems and others will continue until prisoner numbers significantly reduce.

UK Prison Minister Rory Stewart and Justice Secretary David Gauke proposed replacing short prison sentences with community sentences in 2019. As Stewart argued: “You bring somebody in for three or four weeks, they lose their house, their job, their family, their reputation. They come [into prison], they meet a lot of interesting characters [to put it politely] and then you whap them on to the streets again. The public are safer if we have a good community sentence … and it will relieve a lot of pressure on prisons.”

Perhaps we should borrow this idea from the UK Conservatives? The greatest disproportionate incarceration of Māori occurs in short prison sentences. No doubt the Prime Minister will reflect on Waikeria and propose positive ways forward in her forthcoming whaikōrero at Waitangi. This idea might be one of them.