A Letter from the Inside (I)

We received this submission from Socialist Review reader RWK, currently a prisoner in the Otago Correctional Facility. We’re proud to print it here. Socialist Review subscriptions are available free to all prisoners on request.

Back in ’95, when I started coming to jail, prison officers were more confident in their role as wardens. Nearly all of them at that time had been wardens ten, twenty, or thirty years. They were more approachable, and more able to answer questions about policy or procedures. And if they were ordered to take a course of action they didn’t think was justified, they had the strength and conviction to refuse the order and advocate on behalf of the inmates. There were also committees run by the inmates that would liase between inmates and officers. These would help improve the day-to-day running of the prison for both officers and inmates.

Today, more than ever inmates need a representative body to advocate for prisoners’ rights. As more and more prisons are built – and engineered more towards security than rehabilitation needs – more and more officers are needed. And as we fill these brand-new prisons with new officers they try and mix it with ‘senior officers.’ But the spread of ‘senior officers’ is getting thinner and thinner. And in an environment where experience can be the difference between rehabilitation and recidivism, who is it that benefits from this spread of experience?

With this new breed of correctional officer, his or her inexperience and eagerness to ‘fit in’ with their colleagues and to please the boss instills a ‘don’t ask questions, just follow the orders’ mentality/ And with the way the job market is today, they are most likely just happy to have a full-time job that offers job security with benefits and a minimal educational requirement.

Now it is important for these officers to ‘fit in’ and toe the line with their colleagues as they know they may find themselves in a situation they may not be able to get themselves out of without the help of their colleagues. To any order, no matter how questionable or how unjustifiable it is, they will follow. And if questioned by an inmate why such an action is being taken, they only answer they can give is: ‘look, I’m just following orders.’ And any further questions usually result in the officers calling for back-up to deal with an ‘unruly’ inmate, even if that inmate is well within his rights to question the validity of the action being performed. And there is no vehicle in which to challenge an officer, or an order, or a change made to the daily running of the prison. We are expected simply to accept it all.

We have a complaint system, but most inmates are unaware of how to use the complaint system properly, and the officers know this and exploit it. Even though they are obligated by law to explain to an inmate what the process is when making a complaint, they never do. And for those who do know how to use it properly, they can be targeted and labeled as a ‘trouble maker’, affecting how they’re treated for the rest of their lag [time in jail].

But the complain system aside, inmates want to have a say in the day-to-day running of the prison. Especially when new rules are being made up or new restrictions are being implemented.

Section 33 of the Corrections Act states that a prison manager is authorized to make new rules as long as these adhere to section six of the Corrections Act and fit the context of the rest of the Act. Section Six is the principle guiding the corrections system, and ensures that the rest of the Act keeps the public safe, the victim safe, that the sentence is administered safely, fairly, humanely and so on. Other sections, like Section Five – Purpose of Corrections System – gives guidelines for how prisons will be run.

Sections 33 was not put there just so that a prison manager could implement any rule he pleased. When the people who wrote this act wrote this section it was under the expectation that the prison manager would consult with staff and any other relevant people. That he would get reports, studies, case studes, advice and so on, and from these make well-informed and well thought-out decisions that adhered to the Corrections Act and regulations, to New Zealand’s Bill of Rights, the Sentencing Act, the Parole Act and any other act the new rules may impinge upon. But in my experience this does not seem to be the case. We have all manner of rules here in OCF [Otago Corrections Facility] installed under Section 33, ranging from banning us from playing any contact sport (yes, this includes rugby, our national sport) to banning us from owning anything red, blue, or yellow – even if this is a black pair of undies and it has a yellow tag!

Once again, there is no vehicle through which we can challenge these rules.

I’ve tried going through the Ombudsman and the Prison Inspector but, like every other department that is supposed to be a watch-doge and keep the government in check they are seriously under-staffed, under-resourced and under-funded. And they are swamped with work. And as we all know, ‘the wheels of justice turn slowly.’

Now, with the threat of a fully privatized prison system coming up and a government that amends the law as it wishes, inmates, now more than ever, need some sort of representation. A strong committee within their units and strong representation out there in freedom land.

I’ll leave you with this: When a judge sentences someone to prison it is under five principles. (1) To compensate the victim. (2) To hold the offender accountable for his or her crimes. (3) To dissuade the offender from offending again. (4) To deter anyone else from committing the same crimes. (5) To rehabilitate, reintegrate, and re-educate.

Nowhere in the Sentencing Act here in New Zealand does it say it is to be punished.