One chance is all these inmates ask for

Liquidator Damien Grant was 26 when he was sentenced to 30 months in prison for fraud. He spent 16 months behind bars and, last week, went back inside for the first time to see how — if at all — life had changed for inmates.

A few home comforts are allowed in this east wing high security unit cell at Waikeria Prison. Photo / Michael Craig
A few home comforts are allowed in this east wing high security unit cell at Waikeria Prison. Photo / Michael Craig

The day I was sentenced to prison, I pictured only cold stone walls, heavy steel doors, violent men, and indifferent guards. Mt Eden did not disappoint.

I was pale, young and afraid. A high-profile offender, my exploits of smuggling stolen gold bars on a launch had been in the newspapers and that made me a target.

With cells rising three levels, Mt Eden Prison was loud and intimidating.

It wasn't a building designed to lift the spirits. It smelled of damp and a century of grime. I had no frame of reference going in. You hop into the system and you're cut loose, like a sheep on a farm. You quickly realise the guards don't care.

The worst moment was walking into the prison yard for the first time, a scary place for the uninitiated where initiation was a game of crash; full contact rugby on asphalt.

Mine was one of two white faces in what I imagined was a sea of angry men.

My heart was banging, my middle-class coping skills meant nothing. But you learned how things work, how to deal with people on their own terms. If someone wanted to fight, you had to fight them.

Once you understood not everyone wanted to hurt you, it was better.

You made friends. You talked to people.

But one day, as I played chess with an older inmate, there was an alleged
paedophile, metres away, being beaten in the toilets. You could hear his screams and no one did anything.

Suddenly, the screaming stopped and five minutes later guards came and took him to segregation. You realised that could happen to you.

I survived 16 months in three different New Zealand prisons.

Afterwards, having had work before I entered and with a degree newly completed, I was given a reference by a former boss, who knew I'd been inside, and I found work again. I was lucky. Many are not.

Going back to visit the places I spent my time almost 20 years ago, I wanted to see how prisoners now are prepared for a life outside. Has much has changed in two decades?

A few home comforts are allowed in this east wing high security unit cell at Waikeria Prison. Photo / Michael Craig
A few home comforts are allowed in this east wing high security unit cell at Waikeria Prison. Photo / Michael Craig

Remand was the worst place to be in prison-no work, no privileges and an uncertain fate. Some languished for more than a year in that limbo as they waited for a trial. Two months in Mt Eden was enough for me. I signed up for a 30-month sentence rather than taking my slim chances at trial.

My next stop was Waikeria, near Te Awamutu. Like Mt Eden, it was made of stone, with small cells, indifferent prison staff and a lot of sitting around. Unlike Mt Eden, the Victorian design is still in use.

Last week, I returned as a visitor.

Kevin Smith, the current general manager, shows me the prison log-book dating back to 1941, when inmates were classified by appearance; noses were medium or flat and skin colour could be copper, pale or bright. War wounds were catalogued.

The working wings of Waikeria are as grim as I remember them. Prison-ers are searched, exercise in small yards and toil at various prison tasks.

Waikeria inmates help each other train in the high security unit exercise yard. Photo / Michael Craig
Waikeria inmates help each other train in the high security unit exercise yard. Photo / Michael Craig

Most are in their cells by 4pm to eat dinner and contemplate the day.

Once prisoners were classified as low-risk, we could access the prison farms and after grinding through endless weeks at Waikeria I was transferred to the Tongariro/Rangipo complex near Turangi.

It was a different world again and little has changed. Tongariro's units are open to the sky, single-storey square blocks with cells facing towards a grass square.

Most hold 60 men and the routine seems much the same as I return.

Three staff I remember from the early-90s are on duty again the week I'm there. But it is still prison.

An enduring memory of my year at Tongariro was sitting in my cell physically and mentally battered. I had received my third hiding in consecutive days. My nemesis was expert in administering swift, punishing attacks out of sight of the guards, who weren't that bothered, in any event. I wasn't going to win in a fair fight and I didn't.

Damien visits his old cell in the Tongariro Prison, Turangi. Photo / Michael Craig
Damien visits his old cell in the Tongariro Prison, Turangi. Photo / Michael Craig

At my request, the three guards on duty took a "collective smoko", deliberately turning a blind eye as two other inmates and I tackled the man who had been my tormenter. It wasn't pretty but it did resolve the matter.

This story does not surprise the general manager, Dennis Goodin, who describes the philosophy at the time as "safe containment, with an emphasis on the containment."

Goodin is evangelical about the department's vision now; re-offending for released inmates is to be cut by 25 per cent, using 2011 as a base.

Re-offending is narrowly defined as the first 12 months after release, but it is a contrast with the previous regime of releasing inmates with $350 and a cheery "see you next time". Incredibly, the $350 exit grant remains unchanged from the day I was handed mine and headed for home.

On a guided tour around the 1600ha, seven-unit property, I meet Jim, a white-collar offender in his 50s with several years still to work through. Energetic for his age with the rude health that comes from several years of enforced sobriety, he is embracing a painting programme that has him completing several NZQA papers through the Wellington Institute of Technology, part of plans to cut inmate recidivism.

"There is a business here," he assures me, and perhaps himself.

Qualifications that have measurable currency in the outside world may help a former prisoner find work, though they will not overcome the prejudice they will face on release.

Less confident about his future prospects is Fred, also in his 50s and immersed in the rehabilitation culture, ticking away the years honing his woodwork skills. An Auckland-based chartered accountant in his past life, "that is behind me now" he reflects sadly. "I'll make something of this woodwork thing; life is less expensive down here."

For Fred, the pain of being cut from his family as their financial life was torn apart by his misdeeds is still with him. His wife has since died and I sense there is no struggle left in him.

Neither Fred nor Jim are candidates for re-offending. More of a challenge for Corrections is John, who at 37, is still a man with options.

By his own admission a career criminal, graduate of borstal and now saddled with a life sentence, he is charismatic and bubbling with enthusiasm for the opportunities Tongariro presents.

He is in his workshop when we chat, animated and pleased to have an audience.

"I spent years dreaming of being here," he admits. Criticisms that the relaxed regime is a soft kind of punishment for crime are unfair, he says. "We all get out," he observes.

"At least now I have a choice. I might still make the wrong decision when they let me go and that's on me, but, hey, I might not."

Damien Grant chats to a Turangi inmate constructing traps for DOC. Photo / Michael Craig
Damien Grant chats to a Turangi inmate constructing traps for DOC. Photo / Michael Craig

Garth McVicar from the Sensible Sentencing Trust agrees and praises the Corrections Department for publishing a measurable target.

He worries that our prisons are becoming "a one-stop shop for our social ills" but says prisons cannot be faulted for taking a positive approach to dealing with recidivism.

The programme is having success, with a 10.6 per cent reduction but there is a disconnect between what happens inside the prison and how the community reacts once prisoners are released.

"It's a huge challenge," Waikeria general manager Kevin Smith explains.

Some employers, especially local farming and trades businesses, are receptive but the majority have no interest. As an employer, I understand the reluctance.

Someone who has led a blameless life deserves to have credit for it, just as those who have offended need to accept that the rest of the world has the right to judge you for that. But giving someone that one chance can make an enormous difference in their life. As someone did forme.

Other units at Waikeria tackle not work skills but the causes of offending.

Here I meet Anton and James, repeat offenders who know their way around the justice system. Anton is a large man and I wonder if he chose rehabilitation because it made for an easier sentence.

"It's true, you do get like that but it works on you even if you don't go in with an honest intention," he says.

His main skill is carving but he is uncertain about how he will make a living when he is released. "Something, hopefully steady."

James is lean and attentive, eager to please, mindful of his words and aware of his own weaknesses.

When asked if he will be able remain on the straight and narrow once the structures of prison are released, he is unsure.

"That is an excellent question. I hope so but I don't know." The drive to reduce recidivism at both prisons is an important part of the management culture. There is a focus on engaging with inmates; building literacy into daily activities and offering quasi-employment, with contracts and increased pay for those who choose to take part. It is aimed at tilting the mind-set towards appreciating the gains to be had from an honest day's work.

At Turangi, inmates can help to rehabilitate greyhounds. Photo / Michael Craig
At Turangi, inmates can help to rehabilitate greyhounds. Photo / Michael Craig

I am reminded how challenging prison life can be when we tour the secure unit for inmates at risk of self harm.

Smith admits "some just come here for a break from the mainstream and that's okay. It keeps them safe."

Of course, not all inmates want to change. Before we leave, I go onto the walkway where guards keep a watchful eye on inmates in the small exercise pens below. Half a dozen men in a space smaller than your living room, whiling away the hours with nothing todo,nowhere togo. I'd been in those pens and, as an ex-con, part of me always will be.

- Herald on Sunday

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