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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 20. 29th August 1973

Prisoner — My Sixteen Months in Wi Tako

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My Sixteen Months in Wi Tako

Prisoner header

(i) By a current inmate of Wi Tako

Society's so called respectable citizen (Mr Average), has no idea or concern about the man behind bars. All they know and believe is what the police and courts sensationalise via the news media.

This is a book about one man's experience in a New Zealand prison. It is a brief account of the humiliation, frustration and despair suffered by a reasonably well educated and civilised middle-aged man in New Zealand's 'model' first offenders institution, Wi Tako, just north of Wellington.

"Justin" as he prefers to call himself, for obvious reasons, was sentenced to two years imprisonment for an unspecified crime of a sexual nature, apparently relating to children. His somewhat half-hearted insistence that he never committed the crime for which he was convicted, does little to gain him any sympathy from the reader. But, nevertheless his description of life in a first offenders prison is quite moving and within its limitations, accurate. However, the briefness of this book allows little room to convey the atmosphere of tension and depression which is such a marked feature of prison life. "Shell-shocked" new arrivals, numbly attempting to adjust to their new depressing situation, an unnatural world of extreme dullness aggravated by the unbelievable childishness, or perhaps masochistic behaviour, of a fair percentage of the "screws" (prison warders), these are some of the hassles facing prisoners in our 'model' prison.

Though the author conveys to a certain degree this atmosphere of depression, too much is left unsaid. Yes, there are occasional instances of attempted suicide and tears, but if 'Justin' really wants the reading public to be moved — and indeed moved they should be by such a book — it may have been better for him to have given a fuller account of the mental, physical and emotional damage that prison does not only to its inmates, but also to their families and loved ones, the pointlessness of prison life and most importantly the incompetence and general insensitivity of the staff. Of course we get the people who will say that a person should never have got himself into that situation in the first place, but that is another argument, the fact is that Wi Tako is presented to the public as a 'model' prison for first offenders, and therefore its prime function is rehabilitation.

Rehabilitation in prison is a complete myth! The Justice Department makes outrageous claims that it is helping the inmates prepare to re-enter society by allowing prisoners to go out on work parole (which incidentally was introduced by the Prisoners' Aid Society) and Sunday church parole (again introduced by church groups not by the Justice Department). But a lot of trouble is involved to get, work parole, particularly as it is up to the superintendent alone to grant it. The fact is, rehabilitation is a farce and nothing is being done about it. Work parole — being employed in an ordinary job in the community, but returning to the prison each evening, is the carrot that is waved in front of the inmate as a reward for 'co-operation'. This is given for the last few months or weeks of a sentence, if the inmate has managed to keep completely out of trouble for the entire duration of his sentence. Trouble of course can be for the most trivial and ridiculous reasons, e.g. having an extra ration of sugar in one's 'slot' (cell), or perhaps not wearing one's sandshoes to church etc. This one vital resettlement device has now been cut back drastically. 'Justin' was fortunate to have had his few months.

Psychological counselling is available to a few, but this also has been cut back considerably. This is seldom given to those who are most in need of it. Education is regarded as a privilege rather than a right, and is begrudgingly granted to those who are prepared to go through the incredible hassle of enrolling in a correspondence course. A teacher (or should I say 'screw') is in charge of all such great privileges. As 'Justin' notes, an inmate will invariably be given a prison job for which his own skills and experience are of least use.

The accounts of the childish and cruel games that the 'screws' play is true, due to the incompetence of the administration staff. The difficulties faced by inmates in getting even the most trivial request acted on and the general drabness of prison existence are all perfectly correct. It is just as well 'Justin' wasn't sent to one of the harder prisons — it may have broken him. 'Kid-fuckers' as offenders in his category are traditionally called, are despised in all prisons. In the prisons that this writer has been into, extreme violence has been dealt out to such offenders, and this by the inmates themselves. Such incidents as a throat cutting episode in a large prison in the North Island and the kangaroo courts presided over by the fellow prisoners in the very library 'Justin' fondly refers to, have occured. He was extremely lucky to serve his term without injury.

He states that his inmate colleagues wanted him to tell the public what they are really like. He makes an attempt at this by recounting a few conversations and experiences he had with his fellow 'boob-heads' but here he is far too brief. Inmates — particularly in a first offenders prison — are a surprisingly ordinary bunch of blokes, in fact a reasonable cross-section of the NZ community.

Perhaps he should have dwelt more on case histories and the attitudes of his fellow) prisoners, and cut back on his poetry and verse, which bears little relevance to the story. Prisoners are, after all, real people who are in general by no means the danger to society that the courts and mass-media maintain.

The questions that 'Justin' poses in the final section of his book, certainly bear discussion and thought, particularly those relating to the role of prisons in society and certainly the question of first offenders prisons.

Prisons arc, briefly, universities for criminals. If you are not really one when you enter, you will be by the time you leave. Locking up several hundred men together in a relatively small space, with no natural sexual outlet and a general atmosphere of bitterness and tensions, can do nothing but harm to the individual inmate.

Prisoners are not encouraged to express honestly how they feel, in fact it is made clear to them that they will get nowhere by telling the truth. Deceit is the main password at Wi Tako; so much for the claims made by the Justice Department that rehabilitation occurs. 'Justin' suggests that pay increases for 'screws' may help to attract better men for the career of a 'turnkey'. However, only a certain type of mentality seems to get satisfaction out of locking up their fellow men. 'Screws' salaries are already relatively high, as they (happily) admit. But, as a staff training officer recently told me, "the better qualified and sincerely concerned men opt out for community social work or administrative positions", so the prisons are left with the dregs.

'Prisoner' is a commendable effort and it is to be hoped that this book will be read by as many people as possible, especially those who have been deluded into believing that prisons ultimately make for a better and safer society. Though fairly brief 'Prisoner' gives an accurate but out-dated account of life in one of NZ's so called rehabilitation prisons and how it affected one man. The next time you read in the paper about a man being sentenced to a term of imprisonment for the first time, just remember that he is entering an oppressive system from which he cannot emerge a better man— he is entering an unhealthy environment in which punishment, humiliation, degradation and if not strong willed enough, his own self respect, above all else punishment takes precedence over rehabilitation. Public vengence is satisfied, justice is seen to be done, and another criminal is created.

The Editor,


Wi Tako Prison Trentham

Dear Sir,

Following my arrest last year I was sentenced to a term of imprisonment, and taken to a holding prison where I was informed (in due course) that I would not serve my sentence there, but at Wi Tako Prison in Trentham. I was further informed that at Wi Tako I would be considered a "trusted" inmate and would be treated accordingly. I would receive one third remission as opposed to one quarter in other institutions, have ample time for academic studies, and after serving half my net sentence I would be given work parole.

Having been at Wi Tako now for a good many months I feel qualified to make several brief observations about the institution. In my opinion the present superintendent Mr H.E. Wash has strayed considerably from the original concept of reform and rehabilitation about which the prison was built. Striking examples of this are; one third remission has become a standing joke, work parole numbers have declined sharply from about 50 to about 20 under Mr Wash. Out of 160 inmates none are doing full-time studies, and only about 20 are encouraged to do any studies at all. The officers are overbearing and contemptuous rather than helpful and considerate as one would expect of an "open prison".

Surely the time has come for some public investigation of Wi Tako and the policies of those who run it.

Yours faithfully,

(Name witheld by request)

(ii) By Don Franks

What kind of a book about New Zealand prisonlife do you expect from a poetic business executive who has variously dabbled in psychology, karate and little boys?

If you can afford $3.25 for 117 pages, plus a hideous and hackneyed cover design by Graham Oates then be in. For the price of a good feed and several jugs afterwards you get a handful of competently reported prison anecdotes, far too much about the various accomplishments of John Justin and 18½ pages of absurdly silly conclusions at the end.

The first part of the book is the type of thing that has been dealt with in a great many prison novels, the nastiness and stupidity of the "screws", the food, the routine, the frustrations. Of particular interest to vindictive people like me is the question of the author's crime and guilt. "Justin" hovers round this smelly subject for many pages, giving a fairly clear impression but not stating that he was in for molesting children. The hints and asides would have been far better replaced by "I did such and such gentle reader, if you don't like it, well, fuck you."

The author is similarly coy about his innocence or guilt, answering accusers with "I pleaded not guilty". Or consider the following passage. "On the last day of the trial I was found guilty, contrary to my counsel's assurance that the prosecution had no case, by a jury, the foreman of which I had known for years and whose wife had been a member of an organisation of which I had been director....."

You can't help but get the impression that Prisoner was written very largely to get all of this out of the author's system. If you enjoy watching flies pull their own wings off this might be your book. I personally don't mind the odd nearly true confession now and then and some of the anecdotes and bits of description sound fairly accurate. If this was the beginning and end of the book then it would merely be another memorial to Niel Wright's thesis that life and literature are hell under social democracy.

But Prisoner contains something more, a phenomenon just as revolting as the "carbolic food" of Wi Tako. It is infected from cover to cover with that contagious disease of the petty-bourgeoise - amat[unclear: eur] psychology. Throughout the book conclusions are drawn from the selected anecdotes that most if not all prisoners are nutters. For example: "My thesis is that so-called prisoners are the mentally ill. Some are chronically ill, some are suffering from minor ailments. Much could be done about it and if society took this view and forgot its greed in the rat race for position and money for just a little while it could cure the great majority and rid itself of most of its so-called criminals."

This passage may be fairly said to sum up the main message of the book, the rest of his conclusion is mainly repetition and enlargement of it, with a few contradictory statements, presumably to make his "theory" seem more complex.

Well, for a start the prisoners may be "so-called", certainly, but prisoners are prisoners, in New Zealand just as in the Soviet Union, which the author shows such a dislike of.

To call actual prisoners "so-called" is to begin at a position of unreality or a form of liberalism.

To call these prisoners mentally ill is to play right into the hands of the established order. It assumes that our society is so wonderful that only an insane man could break its laws.

This is an obvious conclusion from such silly "logic". So the author covers it up by saying that the real criminals are too clever to be caught. The flaw in his argument that we should convert all prisons into asylums is that society will be as full of criminals as before, a notion that does not appear to disturb our reformer.

"Society" is never defined anywhere in Prisoner. Michael Joseph Savage is at least twice quoted (unsourced) on the question of "society has the amount of criminals it deserves." Surely one would then go on to seek out the motive force of the society in question, its composition, structure and so forth.

But the man with all the answers contents himself with morbidly observing that "if society forgot its greed" then all would be well. But what causes greed? Is it equally existent in every type of society? It is a great pity, but New Zealand society will not forget its greed for the sake of a theory which says that a prisoner who steals a tin of coffee is merely mad.

The "rat race for position and money" is an aspect of the struggle between classes in our society. In a class society such as New Zealand the legal, judicial, and prison system is basically the instrument of the ruling class (in NZ the bourgeoise) to maintain its position of "dictatorship masked by parliamentary forms" (V.I. Lenin State and Revolution).

This is not to deny that our type of society produces much mental illness, which is intensified in the most oppressive conditions of a prison. The author has seen the alienation but not the cause. As the author correctly points out "society cannot solve this problem by shutting it away in little remote corners.... in the hope that the problem will disappear."

Neither can the problem be solved by the suggestions of "John Justin", who as far as I can see has merely constructed an elaborate rationalisation for actions of which he is ashamed.