I agree with Arthur Taylor, prisons are terrible places.
Few staff and even fewer prisoners want to be there, each party doing their time in the hope that better days lay ahead.
In my 18 months as an officer, I considered Corrections to be an above average employer; 5 weeks leave, generous overtime rates and a solid group of really supportive men and women. Fulfillment levels were lacking however, particularly the daily grind of working for a department whose goals seemed counter-intuitive to their daily operations (think: lol worthy attempts at reducing reoffending by 25%).
As Taylor the self-styled jailhouse lawyer claims, it’s not Corrections for many of the youth, but connections. Each week hundreds of prisoners are uplifted, shuttled across sites and funneled into programs of dubious efficacy. When I left the department in 2017, Corrections were still using programs developed in Canada which carried little relevance to the cultural nuances of New Zealand society. Even if such initiatives were home-grown, it’s hard to imagine how involuntary lessons on ‘handling your grog’ (or anger) would be of much use to a 19 year old about to be foisted back onto the streets with no money or job.
Pile on the gang-orientated violence, astronomical operational costs and frequent condemnation from the Ombudsman’s office, reducing our prison population should present as an attractive alternative to our current arrangements.
For that and many other reasons, I am a Corrections abolitionist.
I’m not suggesting we dispense with prisons entirely, there will inevitably be the need for some vaguely prison-like facility to secure society’s most egregious offenders. To deny this would be to marry oneself to some of the less tenable positions politically that are sometimes held among those who fraternize in academic circles. And if I were to hazard at a guess, even Taylor has seen enough in prison to know that there are some inside who are just pure evil. Clayton Weatherston, anyone?
There are just so many things we could be doing better, repurposing the Corrections staff labour force and working alongside all non-violent offenders in the community would, in my view, be a worthwhile starting point.
But suggesting we do things differently is not the same as endorsing the every word of someone who might share similar sentiments. After his release from prison last week, Taylor seems to be dining out on the notoriety of his release, fashioning himself as an authority on all things prison related. It raises a question of whether this level of attention might actually be better utilized in the hands of someone speaking more objectively on the matter.
In less than a week since his release, Taylor blasted Corrections for ‘ripping off’ prisoners by making them pay a small rental fee for a television. It was a charge accepted almost uncritically by the media (and not all that well countered by Corrections). It is of course, not the whole story either. Prisoners cycling through programs are effectively paid a tiny weekly stipend just for being incarcerated, enough to cover the full cost of the TV rental ($2 per week) and if they’re forced to share a cell (itself an appalling system), then they also share the cost of that TV ($1 each per week).
By suggesting there was any merit in most rudimentary of sums offered of Corrections ‘profiting’ from TV rentals, Newshub not only misinformed the community but did prison officers across the country a giant disservice. It is worth remembering that before the rental agreement scheme was introduced, there were 300 incidents of contraband found in individually supplied televisions each year. Also conveniently ignored in that Newshub exclusive is that some prisoners abuse their rental agreement, damage the TV provided to them (often by stripping wires to ignite jailhouse cigarettes) only to leave management with unenviable mounting costs of repair.
In other words, it’s a more complicated story than either Taylor lets on or Newshub were interested in reporting.
Add some of his other gripes this past week, such as the ham-free prison diet (a practical measure which in-part assists with bypassing religious complications associated with the Corrections Act) and you’re left with a sense that despite obvious intellect and some very high profile successes, Taylor is someone whose credibility falls well short of our more distinguished and baggage-free academic minds whose opinions are routinely ignored.
A critical approach could lead one to believe that Taylor is being used by the forces of private media. In recent years it has become something of a national pastime to castigate those speaking publicly for the 10,000 odd most maligned New Zealanders. Mix this with a part-private prison complex that feeds off the incarceration of young brown men (enamouring them to the idea of working for slave-like rates in preparation for their release) and one might ask: How convenient is it that the public are fed a ‘woe is me’ narrative from a man widely judged to have frequently broken his social contract with the community?
Whatever the case, Taylor is simply not all that reliable in his telling of facts. Hardly a surprise given that his rap sheet would rival the length of a small town white pages. Neither is he all that representative of a once delinquent young man now reforming themselves. The parole board gave Taylor, 62, the benefit of the doubt this time around. I would go further by saying he could have been released earlier, but his past as a violent criminal, well into his 40s, is unlikely to ever sit well with the general public or those who work in the halls of our justice system.
Just maybe, as we look ahead to reform what is an unnecessarily punitive and shockingly racist justice system, we could start by drawing on those already doing the mahi in our communities, those with a long standing commitment to social justice and an unparalleled level of credibility to match.
Arthur Taylor just isn’t one of those people, yet.