When images appeared last week of 16 prisoners standing on the smoking roof of Waikeria Prison’s high-security unit, justice advocate Julia Whaipooti was not surprised.
The prisoners had been involved in a six-day standoff with guards that started as complaints over alleged inhumane conditions. They had created make-shift weapons and started several fires, setting mattresses alight. They lounged in collapsible chairs while guards waited below, clad in riot gear. By the end of the standoff, much of the prison’s top level was burned out, the roof partially collapsed.
“How it’s been framed is a riot but it’s a very intentional protest,” Whaipooti said. “They weren’t being heard, for access to their basic human rights. They eat, sleep and shit all in the same place.”
Country should be measured by ‘how it treats its worst’
Last August, a report by chief ombudsman Peter Boshier found inmates ate meals on their bunks close to an uncovered toilet. The cells were “poorly ventilated and hot”. Boshier said this was unacceptable, particularly because 67% of the prison population was Māori.
“Tāne (men) having to eat in such close proximity to the toilet is, in my opinion, both unsanitary and culturally inappropriate.”
Central to Māori custom, or “tikanga”, is the concept of “tapu”, or sacred things, and “noa”, ordinary things, which should never mix. Toileting is thought of as sacred and food is ordinary.
The department of corrections has said there were many channels for prisoners to complain and the avenue they took was a criminal act. It also said it had received no formal complaints from the prisoners.
However, Whaipooti said the incident was a symptom of a larger systemic issue with the way New Zealand society deals with its prisoners. The 16 prisoners involved in Waikeria were largely Māori.
“We shouldn’t be surprised this happened. As a country, we pride ourselves on being progressive on human rights, but the country should be measured on how it treats its worst and that’s looking inside prisons,” she said.
‘Pockets of excellence’
After Jacinda Ardern became prime minister in 2017, Kim Workman took her on a tour of Waikeria. Workman had been the former head of prisons 30 years ago and has since become the country’s most prominent criminal justice reform advocate.
Before that election, the National Party had proposed turning Waikeria into a mammoth project capable of housing 3,000 inmates – twice as big as any similar facility in the UK or Europe. After Ardern visited, however, the government proposed a smaller facility that would instead house 600 people. That is due to open next year. But Workman said that his impression was that until that new facility is built, the old one has been left to fall into disrepair. And that has bred increased levels of discontent.
“One of the unfortunate things about this riot [is] it might give people the impression that the whole prison is run like that or that it’s very common in the whole of the prison system and that is not true,” he said.
Workman said that there are often “pockets of excellence” within a prison, but the difficulty is that it does not always translate to a general commitment to humane treatment of inmates.
He points to the research of British criminologist Alison Liebling, which shows that prisoners who feel they have a higher “moral quality of life,” have better outcomes when released back into the community. This includes feeling like they have a legitimate right to challenge situations they feel are unfair.
“What we need is prisons which treat people with basic decency and humanity,” Workman said. “We haven’t had consistent values that underpin the criminal justice system. There has never been a consistent expression of what justice should look like and what is the purpose of prisons.”
‘Significant entrenched disadvantage’
So, in 2019, the government committed to “Hōkai Rangi” a strategy aimed at transforming the prison system. It promised that prisoners would be treated with dignity and respect and have their mana upheld. It was created with help from Māori to help address the disproportionate number of that community who are in prison. The strategy has a target of cutting the number of Māori in prison from 52% down to 16% – in line with the overall Māori population.
However, since then, another ombudsman’s report into the country’s only maximum security prison, Paremoremo, has highlighted that prisoners were being shut in cells for up to 23 hours a day. The report also found two breaches of the United Nations convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It was released just days before the Waikeria incident.
Workman said that such incidents suggest the difficulty of implementing a strategy that is reliant on huge cultural changes.
“Sometimes those cultures are so ingrained in the prison.” he said. “Some are worse than others and they are very hard to change the culture. Often 10% of staff will support change and the other 5-10% will oppose change and do everything they can to upset it and the rest will just follow along.”
Tracey McIntosh, professor of indigenous studies at Auckland University, said that a culture of systemic racism has been in play for generations.
“Gross disproportionality of Māori within our system is one of the most enduring social facts in New Zealand,” she said.
She said there was disproportionality not just in the prison system, but also in the numbers of people who have been abused in state care, and those with poor education and health outcomes.
“These are forms of structural violence … This is what significant entrenched disadvantage looks like.”
However, she said, if New Zealand could create the conditions for a just society then everyone would benefit. Therefore the Hōkai Rangi strategy was still worth pursuing, she said: “But like all strategies it’s the implementation that is important.”
There have been “so many reviews” but “very little meaningful action,” Whaipooti said. Two reports are planned by Corrections into Waikeira and there are calls for another independent inquiry.
Whaipooti suggested reallocating part of the $2.2 billion spent on running Corrections into Maori-led solutions that address poverty, housing and mental health support.
For example, the organisation she is involved in, JustSpeak, has suggested funding a nationwide network of community-based mental health, drug and alcohol addiction and “hauora”, or wellbeing hubs, with a mandate to work with people referred by themselves, their whānau, or justice agencies.
However, Whaipooti suggested going further and simply giving funding and resources to Māori, along with the political will to allow them to come up with their own solutions to problems created by historical injustices.
“Do that and in five years’ time see what the difference looks like. We are a small country so it’s possible to turn around cultural systems. It just requires a kind of leadership that can implement change. It’s hard work, but it’s possible.”