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Prison violence, where's it heading?

Prison violence, where's it heading?

by Don Franks

Apart from a few one off nights after political demonstrations, I only spent one period in prison.

Some years back, a friend of mine said she was down to run a creative writing course in Linton and wanted to add a song writing component. Could I help?

I knew little about songwriting and less about teaching but my friend was insistent.

"The main thing about writing a song is making one line. Start there and you'll get some sort of result"

When you think about song titles and hook lines, that's pretty useful advice.

So off we went to run a two week short story and song writing session.

That's how I found myself sitting in a small cold room, clutching my guitar and a notepad, among eight suspicious looking men.

"Ok guys, well, um, songwriting, a good way to start off is making up just one line..."

Silence. During which seven of the eight prisoners glanced towards the toughest looking one. This bloke glared at me and said:

"Hrrumph. Well, I've gotta line. Jail Sucks. Make a song outta that."

He leaned back looking pleased with himself while a couple of the others chuckled.

"Right, Jail Sucks, that's do fine, just gimme a second to jot something down"

I cheated; came back with the guy's line in a twelve bar blues. Luckily for me, that worked. The Kingpin guy got kudos for producing a line that had become a real song and the others were happy because the Kingpin was happy. The tension in the room was relieved and we all got on ok for the rest of the course. The only awful thing I had to negotiate was meal times. At noon there was a clatter outside and the prisoners leapt up. "The foods here!" They fell on it ravenously. One look at the rancid mess closed my throat and I said I was just popping out for a smoke. Noone noticed, they were too busy eating.

We completed the course by taping all the prisoners songs onto a little ghetto blaster. Without exception, they were inward looking negative songs about how being in jail sucked.

The guys all seemed to enjoy the course, my writer friend and I did too. We were keen to do some more but the authorities did not require us again.

I recalled this experience when hearing the latest news about increased prison drug use and fighting. As Corrections Association unionist Beven Hanlon starkly noted:

"Prison is about control and privatisation is a race to the bottom. Serco is already there and ( the state run prisons) are not far from it."

Hanlon added: " Private prisons are run so cheaply and with so few staff that the pressure is on the public sector to do the same".

From the National party conference Deputy prime minster Bill English shrugged the problem away.

"We've be a bit naive to think prisoners don't fight. It seems to be regarded as news that there's fights in prison. There's fights in 15 year old rugby teams."

The smooth voice of someone safe from the savagery of prison life. The voice of a politician unlikely to take any serious action.

What action might be taken? Even given the political will, there is no quickfix. Several thousand New Zealand people, mostly men and disproportionately Maori, have been utterly written off by the system.

New Zealand citizens, many of them victims of generational unemployment and poverty become swept into the jail cycle. Capitalism has no interest in assisting or educating these folks. It has no jobs for them on their release, so they reoffend. Back in a concrete hellhole of deprivation, with no future prospects of anything good, prisoners are left with one human emotion, rage.

Since the colonisation of New Zealand prisons have been inhuman places, cellphones are now putting some of that inhumanity on our tv screens. Where will it all end up?

There will be inquiries, there will be hushups, probably some new technology will help screw the lid down tighter, there may even be a few small reforms. Nothing substantial is likely to change, because prisoners and their families are a section of society discarded by capitalism. A minor social nuisance that can be contained by state violence.

Prisoners are quite right to lash out and fight. They are just fighting the wrong people.


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