A Sinful Underbelly – The Prison System Exposed

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 24, Pentecost 2002
by Jim Consedine

In Christchurch during the second week in May, a rather remarkable event occurred. For the first time, the Department of Correction’s policies inside prisons were held up to public scrutiny, as prison officer Nigel French sued the department for $100 000 damages for stress he was placed under while working at Christchurch Prison at Paparua. Nigel French worked in the now-disbanded paramilitary emergency response unit (ERU), nicknamed ‘the goon squad’.

In the course of an eight-day hearing in the Employment Court, nearly one third of the squad members testified to its activities.[i] Those supporting Nigel French claimed:

The ERU was run like a military unit, where orders were not to be questioned. A culture of absolute obedience engulfed the team. There was only one Polynesian in the entire squad even though Maori and Polynesians constitute a majority of prison inmates.

ERU members, dressed in black overalls, full-faced riot helmets, leg and chest protectors, leather gloves and shields, would burst into cells after lock-up at night. Anyone who reacted would be physically restrained, strip-searched and locked up in the maximum-security unit.

There were several such raids over a period of ten months until the unit was disbanded. The pretext for the raids was that the squad needed to be ready to meet any potential trouble around Millennium time.

An ERU member on the rooftop of Rolleston Prison shone a red laser light into cells which inmates believed was the laser light of an armed offenders squad gun.

In one night raid on 19 December 1999, specially invited off-duty police and military police joined the ERU. Twenty personnel burst into the East Wing of Paparua at 10pm and pounded up and down, noisily banging shields, and creating fear and confusion among the inmates who were locked into their lavatory-sized concrete cells. They repeatedly rattled the cell doors of the inmates, many of whom then became abusive and aggressive. Whenever an inmate reacted aggressively, the order was given to ‘take him out’. This meant physical ‘control and restraint’ techniques were applied and the inmate’s removal to isolation in the maximum-security unit.

ERU members often unlocked cell doors and barged in without giving inmates the opportunity to go quietly. Of five cases where inmates were removed from cells during the 19 December operation, proper procedures were breached in four cases.

When some ERU members complained of what was going on to senior management, the regional manager failed to follow up their complaints.

The ERU twice traveled to Dunedin where they set up a nerve centre in a hotel and spied on guests. Members accessed confidential information on a guest from police, via the Wanganui computer, and even disguised themselves as hotel staff to avoid detection. On the same mission, they were also issued with batons and formed a personal protection squad for a prison staff member, who an inmate had allegedly threatened to shoot.

An inquiry team led by Paparua’s human resource manager, Maureen Love, was established after the ERU disbanded. It recommended that the three leaders of the ERU be sacked and the roles of the operations manager, Paul Rushton, and the regional manager, Paul Monk, be investigated. In court, the latter claimed that he knew little of what the squad was doing on a day-to-day basis. On the other hand, Mr Rushton said he knew exactly what was going on. He had also given ‘blanket approval’ to the ERU to unlock anyone they deemed necessary during prison raids, despite standing orders not allowing for such a practice. Their report was sent to the General Manager of Prisons, Phil McCarthy, in Wellington. Ms Love never received a response and all three officers continue to work.

An editorial in The Press (25 May 2002) in Christchurch called for an official inquiry and labeled the formation of the ERU as ‘a sinister reality – a paramilitary force was established in secret by the Corrections Department and allowed to roam virtually at will through the prisons….a macho group was empowered to use force against other citizens, to do so without effective supervision, in secret and without accountability.’ It accused the department of hushing up the issue.

Many more issues were canvassed in the days of the court hearing. One of major interest was how members who fell foul of their team leaders were relegated from the A to the B team. Eventually there were more members in the B team than in the A squad. The A squad consisted of those most staunch and loyal to the leadership, the majority of whom were ex-military. Leaders criticised in Ms Love’s report denied that B squad had been in effect demoted as claimed, even though they were often placed on other duties.

Why anyone would want to voluntarily join such a unit is beyond rational understanding. It appears to be the same type of thinking that attracts soldiers into the SAS or lured the police into the Red Squad during the 1981 Springbok tour protests – a tough, elite, macho culture, highly trained in physical combat, risky, a cut above the rest. Or as one member said in evidence, ‘ten foot tall and bullet proof’. The untouchables!

It is usually considered that the one place a prison inmate can be assured of being safe is when he or she is locked in a cell. Yet it was here while many were asleep and most were in bed that the prison inmates were targeted. It didn’t appear to matter that this happened late at night or that there was no possibility of them escaping the onslaught.

It must be said that such tactics are not new to prison practice. Horrific stories of guards and sometime other inmates entering cells and victimising other inmates are part and parcel of prison life in many countries. But that should not happen in New Zealand. We have kept many of the worst effects of overseas prison violence at bay until now. That’s why this case is particularly important.

The authorities can’t plead ignorance. They knew of these excesses. The Howard League, Canterbury, and its indefatigable secretary Kathy Dunstall, had received complaints and ferreted out information from prisoners and staff alike. In March 2000 they compiled a special fact sheet, The Use of Force in Prison, (which the Restorative Justice Network also circulated) detailing the huge increase in violence from the ERU. In the first six months of operation, the number of incidents seemingly requiring ‘use of force’ rose nearly 400 percent. This included an action where a prison inmate died and another involved the swap-over of the personnel of two wings at Christchurch Women’s Prison. That same month the Howard League, the Restorative Justice Network and Catholic prison chaplains called for the ERU to be disbanded. In June 2000 it was.

Theological Reflection

In theological circles there is a measure by which society can come to some understanding as to whether a process is good or not. It involves the seeking of the common good, as distinct from the perusal of sectional elitist interests. The four criteria needed to achieve the common good are:

how the most disadvantaged and vulnerable are treated

whether the principle of solidarity is sought. That is the principle that says together we form one human family, a shared humanity.

whether the principle of subsidiarity is recognised. This supports a dispersal of authority as close to the grass roots as good government allows. It has everyone working at the level of his or her capacity.

whether human rights are protected. No longer are we able to dehumanise or discriminate against various groupings of people because of their differences.

All four principles have to be implemented to achieve the common good. Two or three is not enough. That would be like letting a racehorse run on two or three legs. It will never succeed. Each of these four subsidiary principles was clearly breached in a substantial way by ERU practice. The common good of inmates and staff was not protected and their safety was compromised.

The whole ERU saga raises some interesting questions. What leads normally decent people to act in the most hideous ways when placed in a certain negative environment? What allows ordinary family people, men and women, to be morally corrupted by a culture of violence and repression and start acting out? Is it merely that their base instincts are activated and the dark side of human nature is unleashed? Is it more to do with psychology, or a corruption by power? Is it principally an absence of law, discipline and restraint? In this case, what led so many to regularly leave all their decency at the prison gates and create such terror for defenceless, trapped, fellow human beings?

These are all valid questions that many ask. But I think there is a more basic question that few ponder. Does culture have an underpinning spiritual presence that also plays a part? This type of behaviour can only occur when the culture is already malevolent; when the spirit of the place is negative. For obvious reasons, most prisons develop such a culture, which is partly why they are such disastrous places for human beings. The working culture at Christchurch Prison is particularly negative and the actions of the ERU simply reflected the worst of that culture.

I believe there is a spiritual power underpinning such culture. Each social grouping has its own spirit of either goodness or malevolence within it. Unless the presence of such a spirit is recognised and addressed, then it can become all pervasive and the unwary can get swept up in it. A power of malevolence, of evil, underpinned much of what happened with the ERU, where violence, intimidation and abuse became acceptable, despite all the talk of professionalism.

The fruits were there for all to see in the evidence produced in court. It’s a pity it has taken so long for the culture of prisons to be placed under the public microscope. Since these practices were defended by prison management, it is clear that this malevolent spirit has found a place in Christchurch Prison, as it has in many other prisons.

This is not to say that all prison staff and inmates are affected by it. Far from it. But people need to recognise the spirit of the culture they work in and confront its negative aspects when appropriate. In this case, clearly some staff became immersed in and corrupted by this malevolent spirit of abuse, chauvinism and violence. Inmates were humiliated and treated with a total lack of respect by civil servants employed to care for them. That such practices could be developed, tolerated and practised in our state-run prisons defies belief. One suspects that many offenders are in prison for behaviour less reprehensible.

We have failed to name these sins for what they are – a power of evil, present and pervasive, in need of redemption.

Church Teaching

The official teaching of the Church recognises the existence of finite, created powers of a personal kind, both good and evil. In reflecting on this, Karl Rahner says of this teaching that very little has been developed since the time of St Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics. It seems to be an important and somewhat neglected area of theology.

Of late, I’ve been wondering what type of spirit was behind apartheid, and what drove the Nazi machine? What was it unleashed in Rwanda? What happened in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia in the 1990s? Why were so many mindless atrocities committed by educated and seemingly reasonable people? Why did so many, even many good religious people, go bad and rape, torture, pillage and murder their country’s best citizens? Was it a power unleashed? If so, does that power last forever? Is it redeemable?[ii]

I believe that a power of evil does exist that is larger than the individual component parts of these systems. I have come to understand that each social unit has a spirit of either good or evil within and unless the presence of such a spirit is addressed then positive social change will be thwarted. In essence, each social grouping has its own spirit, distinct from its component parts. Many call this the culture of the institution or the movement. It was this culture which was under scrutiny in the Employment Court.

I have watched good people enter the police, parliament, the military, various government institutions, the prison service, some corporations, even some religious institutions, and encounter a spirit, a culture, that is negative and life-destroying. They have found themselves under a type of negative power that is corrupting and eventually all-pervasive, one that has left its corrosive mark clearly on them. And they have changed – for the worse. Similarly I have seen many enter positive and fair-minded organisations and movement, and their lives have been enhanced. They have grown through the process of involvement with them. Further, I have seen good people combine to turn the negative spirit of an institution or a movement around to something positive.[iii]

It seems these spiritual powers are redeemable. The call of Vatican II for Christians to engage with the world is a call to engage these powers and bring the light of Christ to bear on them. Only the power of the Risen Christ, prompted by the presence of the Holy Spirit, can overcome these powers. They have a beginning and an end. They need not last forever. But they have to be tackled with all the power, skills, prayer, commitment and courage one can muster. The power behind the malevolence must be identified and confronted. In relation to prisons, this is where chaplaincy in prisons pays such an important role.

While a full public inquiry should be held into the activities of the ERU, it would probably only deliver up a few scapegoats for sacrifice. What needs deeper probing, especially by the Churches, is the spirituality underpinning the culture that led to such abuses. If we believe in the presence of the Risen Christ and the liberating power of the Holy Spirit, how is it that such evil can flower virtually unchallenged under our very noses? Only the Churches can answer that adequately.

[i] Employment Court reports in The Press, Christchurch, 11-25 May 2002, have been drawn on to help compile this article.

[ii] The Common Good, No 19, Easter 1999, article Spirituality and Social Change.

[iii] Ibid.

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