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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol. 37, No 21. August 28, 1974

Do prison really help anyone?

Do prison really help anyone?

Photo of injuries to Dave Peters head

When Dave Peters went to Mt Crawford jail a few weeks ago, he went prepared to pay the penalty for the crime that he been caught at. What happened to him, however, was beyond his wildest and worst expectations.

He is in hospital now, in the intensive care ward. His hair is shaved off and ugly black stitches line his scalp, holding together a long, deep wound. One eye is still blackened. Dave speaks with some difficulty — though his mind, memory etc are okay, he has lost some control over his tongue. It tends to roll around, and slurs his speech. He can't suck either, he can't even have a smoke because he can't inhale, and he can't even whistle anymore, let alone sing. He has lost some control over his oral muscles, and it's not certain that control will return. Maybe it will, and maybe the distorted vision and terrible headaches that Dave suffers will go away, but the memory of what happened to him in Mt Crawford prison will never go away.

Dave is 32, a blue eyed, pleasant sort of man He got on well with most of the prisoners, and set out to cause no trouble. Trouble, however, came to him.

He was on a work party on the prison farm when a young violent prisoner tried to boss him around. Dave objected mildly, and he was kicked in the groin for it. A warder saw this, warned the violent prisoner, and went away. Shortly after this Dave and the same prisoner were working together, out of sight of any warders. The young one got stroppy again. Dave said that he didn't like to be bossed around by someone with no authority to do it, someone younger with less experience than himself.

The young prisoner found this mild reaction too much, leapt over the fence, and belted Dave in the eye. Dave remembers saying that he didn't want a fight, remembers going down to the other, blows, remembers a colossal blow — actually a kick in the head with steel-capped, hobnailed boots. That's all. He returned to consciousness hearing the prison medical orderly telling the ambulance driver to hurry to hospital, he was a serious case.

That's where Dave is now, in hospital, slowly realising the horror of it all, determining himself that even if he's got to serve out the rest of his sentence, he will not go back to Crawford, not now or ever.

He lies in the intensive care ward, in a room with two other battered but living bodies. He is waiting for his wife to come over from Nelson to see him. The Justice Department flew her over once but she can't afford to come back, and Dave's got no money, not even enough to spend on fruit, let alone flight. And anyway his wife is expecting their second child in November.

At issue in this case is basically the inadequate supervision at Mt Crawford prison, that led this first offender to be placed in with other more experienced prisoners, many of them violent. The one that did Dave over with his fists and his hobnailed boots was obviously crazed.

Although there was little or no provocation, this is irrelevant, as even if there was, this type of violent assault should not be allowed to occur. It could have been avoided by separating prisoners more effectively and by not letting dangerous prisoners out of the warders sight. Whether some prisoners should be allowed steel-shod boots, let alone tools, shovels and other potential weapons is another matter to be seriously considered.

There is little point in criticising the actual prisoner who committed this assault. As long as society produced violent people it must properly accept responsibility for them and must do more than it presently is to foster rehabilitation. Such prisons as Mt Crawford tend to make prisoners more rather than less anti-social, and this sort of violence, basically caused by the unjust society outside the prison, is only made more likely by conditions within prison. Our main priority should be to work to build a society that does not need to lock-up some of its members, but there is an immediate goal as well — to make the prisons we do have as humane and as positive as possible.

Some of the problems at Crawford are caused by overcrowding. At present it is carrying about twice as many prisoners as it is intended to. Staff suffer as well as prisoners, but there is little either can do about their rights. Staff are forbidden recourse to strike action, and have only inadequate representation as members of the Public Service Association.

Prisoners don't know their rights, for instance that first offenders (such as Dave) are meant to be separate from other prisoners. Most of them, including Dave, shouldn't be at such a terrible prison as Crawford at all. There is a copy of their rights posted in the prison at the place prisoners change their boots. But according to one prisoner who spoke to Salient, they aren't allowed to stop while changing their boots, and so can't read the regulations. They should be posted in the exercise yard.

What lead Dave Peters to be in prison in the first place? Not so long ago he, his wife, and their child shifted from Auckland so he could take up a farming job near Nelson. But the job turned out to be no good. On the farm, Dave says, the workers were treated like animals, like slaves. So he took a job in town as a truck driver. The flat they got cost $30 a week, a fair whack out of the $58 that Dave was clearing. Food often cost as much as $20 a week, leaving very little to spend on the child and on themselves, particularly with Dave's wife expecting another baby.

Dave tried to set up a small part-time business, a tape-recording agency. But he found it difficult to get ahead, and the temptation to make a few bob on the side by pilfering from his work was too strong to resist. He was caught, and got six months.

In his own words: "When I was sentenced to prison, I was prepared to make the sacrifice for getting caught. But I certainly wasn't prepared for what I got...."

A press statement from the Howard League

The NZ Howard League for Penal Reform (Wellington Branch) says that it deplores the recent assault on an inmate of the Mount Crawford Prison Farm.

'Inquiries have shown that at the time of the assault, only one warden was present with a work gang of eight prisoners. The gang leader was a prisoner serving a sentence for robbery with violence.

'This situation is most unsatisfactory, and shows up grave inadequacies in prison administration. The League is not opposed to work gangs, but it is absolutely essential that the gangs ere properly organised and provide worthwhile activities for prisoners it appears that in this particular instance, there was considerable shortsightedness end naivety on the part of prison administration.

What the league deplores is that a peaceful prisoner serving time for a minor offence was placed in such a dangerous situation. The possible repercussions of placing a petty offender alongside violent offenders should have been obvious.

'Moreover, enquiries have disclosed that the prisoner who was assaulted should never have been in the Mount Crawford prison. He was convicted for petty theft, and the Probation Office recommended a penalty of periodic detention. It appears that the presiding magistrate thought he knew better and sentenced the prisoner to six months imprisonment."