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Monday, August 05, 2013

"At some stage you have to fight"


In this eye-opening and thought provoking article a recent guest at Dunedin's Milton Prison explains what prison life is actually like in New Zealand. From getting in to getting out the author describes the barbaric, brutal interior of the country's criminal justice system.

New Zealand has the second highest incarceration rate  in the OECD countries. Second only to the United States. After the recent riot in a Waikato prison and the current hunger strike of 32,000 men in California it is worth asking - just what happens in prisons? The suicide rate is twelve times higher than the "normal" population and the chances of being murdered/seriously assaulted increase tenfold. New Zealand continues to use the mass incarceration policy of the US (which does not reduce crime) and the increasing privatisation of prisons reveals a disturbing trend. The private jails require a 90% occupancy rate to be profitable, indeed a judge in the US has been recently found guilty of prosecuting to order. Right-wing think tanks are looking at penal "islands", given the standardisation of prisons there would be no need for any geographical/ cultural differences and an island limits any possibility of escape/investigation. Whilst private companies compete for contracts the correction service is fast becoming the main "boom" business in NZ with all the misery that entails.

Having become depressed I committed a spree of petty crimes and together with an addiction problem was going downhill fast. In short I drank my way to jail.The last time, after many delays. I went in front of the judge it was a Friday, do not go to court on Friday, they are tired and there is a greater chance of jail. The court appointed lawyer gave me the option of a plea for bail then or later, I was advised by fellow inmates to not enter a plea for bail ( you only get one chance due to recent changes in the law!). I was scared and did not want to go jail for the weekend so I went for it, big mistake. First rule learnt: do not panic, two/three days in jail is preferable to months, your own lawyer needs time to plead your case. I entered a plea for bail and lost due to the changes, I was now in jail until sentence in three months.

The first thing that happens is that you are cuffed and transported in a van with six others. The van is small, cramped and claustrophobic, you are immediately vulnerable to attack and you are now in "prison culture'. "Bundys" are new guys who often fall victim to the old hands. A recent case involved a seventeen-year-old who was put inside by his parents to "teach him a lesson", he was murdered in the van, the killer got out and said "I've knocked him off".No one talks during the van ride and it is with a sense of increasing anxiety you enter the jail grounds. If you smoke you can't, and some are in so much pain withdrawing from methadone/alcohol/P etc that they moan and sweat.

You are then processed, your clothes removed, you receive an anal examination, oral examination and given a coloured tracksuit. Where you are placed, denotes the colour of the tracksuit."Segregation" is not a safe option as you are given a bright orange tracksuit which singles you as a potential pedophile, best hit mainstream. Despite this twenty-five percent of the New Zealand prison populace is in segregation to stay "safe". In segregation you are only given one hour exercise, are locked up 23 hours a day and your fellow inmates are those who abuse children.You are not allowed out and the prison population including guards view you with total disdain. I did not go there. Some, such as transsexuals and gay men have to go there for their own safety but it is not pleasant.

Given I was new to prison I was placed in the high risk unit, again against inmates advice. High risk simply a four foot by foot room with no blankets, no bed ( a concrete shelf) no blankets (just a horse hair top), no TV, no company, no conversation, no mattress, in short total solitary. One recent case involved a man ( high profile) who simply kept dropping of the shelf onto the floor till his brains fell out. Many in there are young men who have "broke" and are clearly in need of immediate psychiatric care. Your day is spent under constant surveillance, you cannot sleep for the checks, the light goes on/off automatically at 6 both ends of day.The screams and pleas fill your night. I got out in four days, the longest four days of my life, some people are held in there for years. More than two months and in my view you have little chance of ever reintegrating into normal life. Prisoners in Los Angeles are currently on hunger strike highlighting the torturous nature of solitary confinement. It is inhumane and akin to concentration camps, "The Milton Hilton" indeed!


You are then given a new tracksuit and moved to a remand unit. Here you are exposed to the others, there is a camaraderie but there is also a culture of extreme violence/intimidation especially by the gangs. Younger males usually join a gang if serving six months or more as it's the only way to survive. It gives you protection in a place where there actually is not any. Lifers (those on life sentences) usually commit one or more additional offence in jail, up to and including murder. You are not told the routine, how to act, what to do, every step is used as leverage to further exploit you.You are now allowed out of your cell for one hour in the morning and one in the afternoon. Exercise involves marching from wall to wall in a fenced concrete area about the size of a small garden (the cage). As a guard said to me if you don't feel like an animal now you will soon. The units are split down the middle, the gangs are mostly segregated on racial lines and dependent on the prison population control different units. Despite this it can and does "go off". And yes you are grateful when the door is locked and yes you get to watch a lot of TV.

Meals are the ritual you live by. Breakfast is standard, two weetbix, milk and two slices of toast. Three sandwiches for lunch (grated carrot, coleslaw fillings etc) and once a week you get a cheese sandwich. You are given a one small packet of sugar a day. The evening meals are usually mince and are the same day to day. A recent case by an inmate fought and won to be allowed a piece of fruit a day, usually this a kiwi fruit and its usually inedible. Again the food is controlled by inmates and dependent on the gang you could be getting very small rations. Most inmates lose significant weight. It is usually under-cooked, the potatoes are usually bad: in short the local supermarkets make a lot of money feeding you crap.

There are periodic riots, largely unreported by the media, we had at least three a week. The unit would be closed down, armed guards in jeeps would arrive en masse to close the unit. We are talking jeeps and automatic rifles. They enjoy it, its obvious. After an "incident" the unit can be closed down for a week, this means you get no exercise for up to a week. Guards can make or break you, one guard who doesn't like you or is a psychopath can make your life hell. In my case one guard refused to give NRT for three days. There is no recourse to any real complaints procedure, there is a phone to complain of violence/intimidation from fellow inmates but no-one uses it. Most in my experience were OK but would leave tension to resolve itself. This means essentially that they will leave you alone in an area and turn a blind eye. At some stage you usually have to fight. I came out of jail with four broken fingers, a fractured arm and acquired a few bruises. The guards offered me some ice for the broken bones.

In California 30,000 prisoners are on an indefinite hunger strike to end indefinite solitary confinement.
On sentence if convicted, and I was, you are moved to an assessment unit, this is also a high secure unit. You are then incarcerated with high profile criminals and are more exposed to attack. Your exercise is restricted to one hour a day. My experience of jail was 23 hours a day locked up in a doubled up room no bigger than a large toilet. There are some very anti-system people in there who express their pain and misery through violence. Any sign of weakness is exploited to the max, young males often do not eat as the "lifers" basically get them to give them all their food.You learn how to be ruthless because you have to be. No one trusts anyone but the political rebellion is obvious, its not organised and its not educated but it's there.

I was then moved to a low risk unit, here you are let out for eight hours a day, and dependent on the weather or the guards motivation it's inside or outside, I ran 15 kilometers every day when outside. But imagine 600 men, gang members et al in a small building with no distractions for an eight hour day every day. It's intense, mind-numbingly boring and dangerous. At any point you are aware it could "go off", the day is filled with threat and counter threat. This is where the gangs recruit and young men are marked for life. There are moments of unity and when it happens it's very powerful: refusal to come out for head count, the mutual playing of Rage Against the Machine, and the knowledge you are fitter than the guards and could easily win in a battle. At any point they could easily overcome the guards and most guards do not like working there because it is very dangerous. Again different gangs own different areas. You can end up paying rent on a cell as the guards stay out of any politics.The gang rules the low secure units, no one is safe. You end up spending every hour of every day counting down your time. You pray for sleep because its your only escape. You make friends in there but the only real aim anyone has is to get out. There are deaths in there, some suicides, some natural, some murders. If you have a heart attack in jail you will be allowed to die. It may even go unnoticed for 12 hours.

Prison guards provoked a riot at a Waikato prison in June 2013 when they broke a teenage inmate's arm.
There are currently five thousand Maori males in jail. Statistically 50% of the jail population despite 12% population in society. Most inmates are addicts or suffer mental health issues. Most are illiterate. You come out super fit, hyper vigilant and most go back within a year. They have nowhere to actually go, you lose your accommodation and cannot get any more due to the stigma. You cannot get work for the same reason. You are given $250 on release called "steps to freedom". A lot I met know that they simply cannot survive on the outside. I personally found myself in Dunedin with absolutely nowhere to go, traumatised and received no help, I sat in a park for two days, in the end you go where your fellow inmates are. They understand how you feel. Some end up back in within the day. Personally its two years on and well I was lucky. It is an experience you do not forget, it marks you for life, to lose all your rights as a person is not one you forget or should.

I learnt inside that the prison system does not work. Its barbaric, brutalising and it is destroying young people. It is the last low before death. Imagine dying in a room with bars as your last image; I did. Prisoners have no voice, no representation and no rights. The system needs to change.The rich and the corporations make money from it, critique it, but it is always the poor, the marginalised and the colonised who end up in our jails.

1 comment:

atihana m. johns said...

That broken arm wasn't mentioned in our freedom fighting media that I remember as the cause of the riot.