Long-time prisoner Arthur Taylor has given his former jailers a lashing while urging the Government to dramatically reduce the prison population by allowing more people to serve their sentences in the community.

Taylor, 62, spoke of how he and others in the maximum security Auckland Prison at Paremoremo would make a pledge every night to see each other alive the next morning.

"We would have a hongi every night, shake each other's hands and say 'see you in the morning bro'. It was making a commitment."

Suicide and other violence featured strongly in Taylor's speech to the Sir Peter Williams QC Penal Reform League conference today before academics, lawyers, judges and others in the criminal justice system.

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He described the horrors of prison life as the motivation behind his evolution as a "prison lawyer". By the time of his release, Taylor had enjoyed repeated success challenging prison authorities and government over the way prisoners were treated.

Taylor, released this year after 40 years in jail for about 150 convictions, said the smoking ban introduced by the National Government spurred him to action.

He said he believed the ban would create a surge of suicide and violence as prisoners had removed a crutch which got them through their time.

His successful cases before the courts - thwarted by shifting Government regulations - showed him judges listened to reason.

"I took simple commonsense and argued it. If you know what's right, use commonsense and logic and the law will usually follow you."

For prisoners, often hammered by lobby groups and media, it was also instructive.

"It brought hope and inspiration to prisoners that they did matter. Prisoners, funny enough, have an innate sense of justice."

On smoking, he believed the withdrawal of tobacco had resulted in an increase in suicide and violence.

The case led to others, including over prisoner voting rights, Corrections' decision to bar him from speaking to media and, just before his release, the prosecution of a prisoner for perjury in the double murder case which saw David Tamihere convicted. During his speech, he joked of "going from breaking the law to enforcing it".

Arthur Taylor was previously housed in Auckland Prison during his lengthy time behind bars. File photo / New Zealand Herald
Arthur Taylor was previously housed in Auckland Prison during his lengthy time behind bars. File photo / New Zealand Herald

Taylor spoke of his advocacy frustrating the Department of Corrections, and of bureaucracy throwing red tape at him while making it difficult for him to pass on his knowledge - and the ability to read and write - to prisoners.

"Perish the thought of educating prisoners," he said. "They might start insisting the law was obeyed."

He said Corrections was more restrictive than it needed to be when dealing with prisoners, and appeared to do so because it was a bureaucracy stuck in its ways.

Taylor criticised Corrections minister Kelvin Davis for not making radical change, following the lead of Scandinavian countries which had far less restrictive penal policies.

Taylor said there needed to be a better commonsense approach to how prisoners were received by the community.

He said it was not widely appreciated most prisoners were victims of crime themselves.

"Criminals are never born. They are made that way."

There were some inmates - he named RSA killer William Bell and the notorious Graeme Burton - who would not change.

"There's a core base you just wouldn't release. They have no empathy for fellow human beings. The rest you can do something with."

Many of those he said could serve their sentences in the community. "We have electric prisons now - you can monitor them."

Taylor said the questions of risk were phrased poorly. "Everyone in society is a risk to public safety in the right circumstances. The question is, are they an undue risk?"

WHERE TO GET HELP:

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.

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There are lots of places to get support.

For others, visit: https://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/get-help/in-crisis/helplines/