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Shannon Leonard's Death In Mt Eden Prison

Speech in parliament by Green MP Nandor Tanczos

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act states that:

'Everyone has the right not to be subjected to torture or to cruel, degrading, or disproportionately severe treatment or punishment' and that 'Everyone deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the person'.

On Sunday I spoke at a public meeting called to discuss the death of Shannon Leonard in Mt Eden prison. He had been kept in filthy and inhumane conditions that led to his suicide. He was incarcerated in a tiny cell 7' by 6' with just a plastic bucket to defecate into. He was forced to spend 18 hours a day alone in this dungeon.

The meeting was filled with people from across the political divide - Marie Hasler was there from the National Party, there were ex-New Zealand First people, there were lawyers, criminologists, people who work in prisons, people who had been in prison. All of us were there because we cared that another young man had taken his own life in Mt Eden prison.

I reflected at the time that just over one year ago I had been in the audience at a meeting called to discuss the last death by suicide of a young man in Mt Eden. I had sat in the same methodist church, listening to some of the same speakers, talking about the same issues - concern about the imprisonment of young people in adult facilities, concern about the ultimately lethal lack of care given to that young man, a demand that Mt Eden should close.

Now, just over a year later, nothing has changed.

There are some in this house, in the media and in the public who think that we should not care. The day after Shannon died I read a front page story on an escape from the Mt Eden remand centre. Shannon Leonard's death warranted one brief passing mention in the last paragraph of the same article.

I do not agree. I reject the idea that we can build a peaceful society by degrading our own humanity.

But those who say that we should be thinking more about the victims of crime are correct. Because the problem is not Mt Eden. That filthy place is just an extreme example. The problem is that our whole justice system is flawed.

We must develop a truly victim centred justice system. I applaud the Supplementary Order Paper that the Minister of Justice Phil Goff is putting to the Victims Rights bill. But I have to say that it is not enough. We must have a system that recognises that when a crime is committed, the number one problem is that someone has been hurt, and the number one priority is to heal the harm caused by crime.

And unlike some in this house who try to outdo each other in demonstrating their own lack of understanding, victims of crime are largely unmoved by a need for revenge. Their main priority is to make sure it doesn't happen again to someone else.

If we really care about victims let us look at how we can reduce offending and reoffending rather than how we can sate our appetite for punishment. How we can get offenders to take responsibility for what they have done and take steps to put things right.

Locking young people in cages is not likely to produce that result. What it does produce is people more angry, more hostile and more equipped to commit crime and get away with it.

As a society we have strange priorities. We provide little money for helping people avoid a life of crime, by providing opportunities in education, meaningful work and community development. Yet we seem to have an open chequebook for locking people up after they have done wrong.

We must change. Let us begin by closing that house of shame, Mt Eden gaol.


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