Tuesday, September 07, 2004
As I recall, when Judge Young found that prisoners had been kept in conditions that violated their human rights (specifically, kept in a special, nasty solitary confinement for months on end), it was generally recognised that this was a bad thing.
There are are of course plenty of people who are disappointed when they discover that prisoners' human rights aren't routinely violated, but I'll assume we're in agreement that when someone's sentenced to jail time, the punishment is no more than that enforced deprivation of liberty. Prisons in themselves are horrible enough as a punishment, and more than brutalising enough to get in the way of rehabilitation.
Anyway, the reaction was different when it became know that these people were to receive compensation. At up to $55 000, about $2500 a month, which isn't that exorbitant considering the violation in question was going on continuously, and is peanuts compared to what the lawyers cost.
On the radio, Phil Goff was genuinely outraged. In fact, it's the most emotion I've ever observed in a politician. He argued that the people responsible for the breach should be punished (he didn't respond to the prisoners' lawyer's claims that they had been no disciplinary action and that the methods decried in the judgment were still being used) but that there prisoners shouldn't receive compensation. And I can see it sucks that these people are to be compensated (at up to $55 000) while their victims, or the families which survive their victims, have received nothing.
The painful truth is that criminal acts are treated as offenses against public order and are prosecuted by the Crown, not the victims. And the response is to punish the perpetrator, ultimately by the combined expedient of depriving them of their freedom and isolating them from society (though this does have the unfortunate effect of locking them all up with each other).
You may get an inkling here as to why victims are so rarely satisfied by the court process.
On the other hand, when the state violates somebody's human rights, this is typically dealt with through a civil process, with the victim taking a complaint. If real harm was done to them they can expect restitution, inevitably in the form of money.
For a population whose juries (as I've noted before) can't seem to grasp the legal definition of murder, this distinction may be annoyingly fine (if so, we could always balance things by locking up the people responsible for the "Behaviour Management Regime"). But wait, there's still more.
There's no significant legal (or, for administrative purposes, moral) connection between the crimes these people committed and this compensation. As punishment for their crimes, they serve prison time. End of story. Except that, in the course of prison discipline, they were treated in a way which, according to the court, breached both the Penal Institutions Act and the Bill of Rights - treated in a way which New Zealand law says no human being should be treated.
What the objections to compensation boil down to is that, having committed a serious crime, people don't deserve to be compensated for abuses of their human rights. Or don't deserve the human rights, and 'having done their time' be damned. Which tallies nicely with the mood against convicted criminals doing things like studying or boxing or living somewhere. Also with the political race to see who can be tougest on crime. But, in much the same way that freedom of speech is patently unfree if you can't offend people, human rights are only human rights if they apply to everybody.
I'll add that this approach has also given New Zealand the second highest rate of imprisonment in the western world, despite having one of the lowest crime rates. It doesn't help with that thing called 'rehabilitation' either.
Goff's proposed solution, to make a law passing a bunch of any compensation which prisoners receive to their victims, is a blatant instance of legislating over single cases. Which is known to be a stupid way to make law. In this case it's also a deliberate undermining of the Bill of Rights.
He also intends to appeal.
I had cause to call the IRD that morning, but I didn't have the courage to ask if they'd already had people demanding to know why the pay taxes if the money's going to criminals. Personally, I object to the appeal so I guess we're even.
I can't see the crown substantially improving its position here. They should buy me one of the new iMacs, which would be a more beneficial use of the taxpayers' money (even allowing that I've just bought a new eMac) and about two hundred times cheaper.
The issue in law is between the State and the abused prisoners, with, admittedly, humanity on the sidelines. If Phil Goff has a problem with the fact that it ended in compensation (and an even more expensive lawyerfest), he and Paul Swain should see to it that we treat our prisoners properly.
After Goff, there was an interview with the man who was supposed to be running the Stanfordprison experiment but turned into a psycho prison warden. You may have seen this experiment fictionalised in the film Das Experiment. He talked particularly about Abu Ghraib, and lamented that nobody anywhere had implimented what was needed to prevent abuse of prisoners. Not just rules, but real independent monitoring.