Prison worker ‘ashamed’ to have worked for Department of Corrections

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A former prison staffer says he feels ashamed to ever have worked for the Department of Corrections.

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(File image). Photo: Unsplash / Matthew Ansley

Corrections have come under fire recently for their treatment of prisoners since the Waikeria stand-off.

Sixteen inmates had control of Waikeria Prison’s ‘top jail’ for six days, protesting what they said was inhumane conditions.

The stand-off came to an end after Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi went in and talked to them.

Corrections said it already recognised the maximum security arm of the prison was not fit for purpose, and a new facility was due to be completed by 2022.

Mike Rowntree, who worked at Hawke’s Bay Regional Prison for six years, said what happened at Waikeria came as no surprise to him.

“It is a complex situation at Waikeria, they are trying to marginalise them by saying they are people brought back from Australia and they are different gangs,” he said.

“I felt for them in the way they were so angry, that that was the only thing they could do is get on the roof and burn the place down.

“There are probably deeper darker things in there but let’s look at the facts, a 1911 building.

“You want to live in a cold concrete 1911 building, drink brown water, eat crap food, be too hot in summer and too cold in winter, be locked down, 24 hours of the day and be happy about it?

“I don’t see how anyone can say that is okay, so I don’t blame them.”

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier previously said his investigation did not find the quality of the drinking water to be as bad as the prisoners had described it, nor did he receive any complaints about it.

Corrections had also previously said they received no formal complaints from the Waikeria prisoners, despite some of the protesters telling media they were taking a stand against a lack of basic supplies.

Rowntree worked as an educational tutor and intervention co-ordinator until September last year. He said he had to leave his position at the prison after it took a significant mental toll on him.

He got into the role at the Hastings prison after returning from overseas as a teacher of English as a second language. Before that, he worked as a sound engineer for Radio New Zealand and Television New Zealand.

Initially, Rowntree enjoyed working for Corrections.

“People don’t understand how these guys are when they are spending long periods of time in prison.”

Towards the end of his six years, Rowntree said he struggled deeply with the Corrections system.

He said the prison environment was one of endemic bullying and slammed it as a deeply racist system.

“My doctor said I needed to leave the prison and so did my wife, for my mental health.”

He said his time working at Corrections had left him with extreme stress and a lot of trauma.

“I just walked out of there one day in tears and thought I can’t deal with these people anymore.”

He said while most of the prison staff were kind and compassionate people, others were not.

“There are a certain percentage of them that ruin it, they’re sadistic people… They enjoy others’ pain.

“It was predominantly the 20 percent prison of the workforce who were just rotten to the core… They wouldn’t get jobs elsewhere.

“I talked to the prison director, who said if she could sack 20 to 30 percent of the staff, she would but the Public Service Association and the Corrections union are super, super powerful.”

Rowntree said bullying among staff was common.

“I had a senior PCO [Principal Corrections Officer] threaten to attack me when I was trying to inspire a prisoner into an art scholarship he had gotten.

“In front of the prisoner, other prisoners and his staff he went off his lid calling me a c–t and who the f–k did I think I was.

“He said to me ‘these bastards don’t deserve this’, and threatened to hit me several times.”

Rowntree said he reported it to management, but it just got covered up.

“That sort of s–t happened to many times because of the power of the unions and all sorts of other stuff.

“When stuff like that happens and it happens all the time because there are some really gnarly people there, they just cover s–t up.

“When I asked the deputy of the prison about what was happening with this particular PCO, all I got was ‘we can’t tell you, it is an HR issue’.

“There is a real feel of intimidation, bullying and that real old school policing.”

Rowntree said that was not the only incident he had to go to management about prison officer conduct.

“I reported another officer in HMA, who would regularly call the inmates ‘f—tards’.”

He said she would say ‘get in your cell you f—tard’.

“So, I reported her, she got told off, but afterwards she wouldn’t let me into her block to do education with the inmates.”

Rowntree labelled the infrastructure at the prison “rotten”.

“Keeping people who are traumatised, mentally unwell and violent at times in appalling conditions and locking them down 23 hours a day doesn’t help.

“What the f–k do they expect.”

Rowntree said the majority of the Hawke’s Bay prison population is Māori.

“When you look at the wider New Zealand population, Māori only make up 16 percent.

“It’s just appalling, disgusting and wrong in my opinion.

“We owe it to Māoridom to do better.”

Rowntree said part of the reason he walked out of his job was because he wasn’t thick-skinned enough.

“What I realised was, I was becoming like them and becoming a person I didn’t want to be.

“I would run rings around them intellectually, to make myself feel superior to these people because they were so rude to me.”

Rowntree said after having another altercation with another officer, he threw in the towel.

“I wanted to help these guys more but I wasn’t even helping them, I was turning into a monster myself.”

Rowntree said it upset him having to leave the job knowing the men needed more rehabilitation.

“To be fair, there were some really good people in the prison on both sides.”

Rowntree said most of them were just left to rot and then what they would do is train for gangs.

“It was just a terrible cycle.

“They get locked down a lot because they are understaffed.

“How can we expect to rehabilitate people when they are in such a profoundly negative in environment.

“New Zealand is still locked in this 1860 Westminster justice system, we need to be for Māori by Māori and a complete revamp of the sick system we have.

“They are traumatised people, and New Zealand just pays lip service to that.”

Rowntree slammed the Corrections system as “inhumane”.

“It is a horrendously inhumane system. I’m ashamed to have worked there.

“One POC told me one day, if I could take these guys [the prisoners] up in a plane to 30,000 feet and drop them, I’d do it.

“My manager used to say they just need a good 4×2 round the head.

“I’m ashamed, I feel dirty, I feel like I’ve been dragged through a sewer.”

Rowntree said he found it hard to believe there was no official complaints about the top jail at Waikeria Prison.

“You tell Jeremy [Lightfoot, the chief executive of the Department of Corrections] to go and hang out in an HMA cell for a couple of days.”

He said it wasn’t uncommon for officers to throw complaints in the bin

“I’d interview these guys, gnarly prisoners and they would be in tears saying ‘please, help me’.”

Lightfoot previously said two internal reviews into the Waikeria protest would be undertaken.

The first will be an operational review undertaken by Corrections’ chief custodial officer that was intended to provide quick insights around any operational matters Corrections could apply across its network as a result of the incident.

The second review will be run by the office of the inspectorate – an independent arm of Corrections that answers to the chief executive.

The Department of Corrections and the Corrections Association of New Zealand were both approached for comment but have not responded.

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