Matt Nippert - apprentice hack, Auckland

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Welcome to the human zoo

The lime green bars, probably selected by a colour-psychologist as being 'calming' when the place was built, have socks for drying and loosely clasped hands hanging off them.

A mirror is edged out between the thick steel cylinders - an inmate periscope. We can see a haggard face, eyes sizing up the commotion down the corridor. He can see us too.

Prisoner: "You're treating us like animals in this place!"

Chitchat between other inmates ceases. We have a captive audience.

Warden: "No we're not."
Prisoner: "Yes you are."

The exchange continues, allegations of inhumane treatment countered in a reasonable tone by his guard. Then the conversation gets down to specifics.

Prisoner: "I got called a piece of shit in front of my lawyer today. We can buy Milo and noodles from the canteen, but can't get any hot water!"
Warden: "There's a reason for that." (This prison had riots in 1998 that saw prisoners improvise a hot-water hose to scald screws.)

"Welcome to the human zoo!" he declaims dramatically as we are led away. The warden mutters, "I'm just sorry for his victims." The prisoner in question serving a long stretch. For serial rape. He's probably not a nice man - but neither is his accommodation.

Prisons tend to polarize people. They're either essential bolt-holes for society to place its most dangerous members, or they're dark, dehumanizing places that only eventually only contribute to the crime they try to prevent.

Really, both sides are correct, although most commentators have no idea about what they're arguing for and against. The Shawshank Redemption or Bad Girls provide the only popular glimpses of what life behind bars might be like: tension, riots and soap-in-the-showers.

Greg Newbold knows a little more than most. Sentenced for drug trafficking offences (hey, it was the 70s, the heyday of LSD), he did hard time for his misdeeds.

But the War on Drugs wasn't all about collateral damage. Newbold finished his MA on inmate culture and society while behind bars - quite likely within one of the very cells I peered into last week. He has since risen to be one of New Zealand's foremost criminologists and prison commentators, blending personal experience with academic study and analysis.

One thing is clear: prisons are not nice places. But some prisons are nicer than others. (By nicer I mean more humane, not more lavish. The prison I visited had the feel of a decaying dental clinic rather than soft backpackers.)

Mt Eden, for instance, had its last stone laid in 1888. (How many hospitals would be left to continue running based on 18th century architecture?) The history of the institution speaks volumes: It was New Zealand's last 'hanging gaol', seeing the country's last execution in 1957.

Newbold writes of the riots in 1965 where a red-headed disciple of Nietzsche named Daniel MacMillan inspired other prisoners into an audacious escape attempt. Using a smuggled pistol, the firebrand and his Samoan accomplice took a couple of guards prisoner and tried forcing their way out the front gates.

The alarm was quickly raised, and the escape attempt turned to custard. Sensing defeat, the escapees unlocked all the cells, escalating the situation to a fully-fledged riot. Prisoners started fires, and the police, army, firemen and correctional officers deemed it too dangerous to enter and break up the riot and put out the fires. After two days, Mt Eden was a blackened shell.

The prison was practically destroyed, and prison reformers (and prisoners themselves) held hopes that this might mean the archaic structure would be demolished. Not so, after a succession of 'temporary' renovations Mt Eden was rebuilt and today is still one of the centerpieces in the New Zealand prison system.

Paul Swain announced in Parliament last week that the country's prison population will rise by 20% when the year 2010 rolls around. We trail the United States and Russia in imprisonment rates by large margins, but are catching up with such international benchmarks for civilized justice as Romania and Hungary. We're almost double the EU average.

So why is the Government building three new prisons, amid public protest from prospective neighbors and iwi? Those who oppose new prisons on principle have a lot to answer for. And so do the Norm Withers' and Sensible Sentencers of this country.

It's a hard truth, but unless faced up to, when release date comes our ex-prisoners are increasingly going to become future crime statistics and inmates.

(PS: MacMillan was released in 1972 from a mental hospital, and moved to Australia. After committing a murder in the commission of an armed robbery he was shot dead by the New South Wales police in a 1976 shootout. Anyone from Hollywood shopping for a decent prison flick premise?)