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Marc My Words: 10 Sep 2004

Marc My Marc Alexander MP

Justice, in the hands of a human rights lawyer, is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.

We've all heard by now of the four prisoners who look set to receive compensation with a claim totalling $605,000. The High Court concurred with an earlier Court declaration that under the Bill of Rights Act the prisoners' rights had been breached. The lawyer acting on behalf of the prisoners conceded what the real intentions of the inmates were by saying, "The clients want a cheque".

The Sunday Star-Times editorial ran with the headline, 'We must guard prisoners' rights too' while the Dominion Post turned victimhood completely on its head in identifying these criminals as victims with its headline, 'Justice for all victims'.

These two bleeding heart columns make similar assertions, some sensible, some silly; that the abuses committed by the prison system cannot be overlooked; that the 'power of the jailers' should not go unchecked; and that the 'five prisoners who were subjected to a harsh solitary confinement regime' should have access to compensation as redress.

No one can disagree that the Corrections Department has an obligation to account for their actions and treat inmates humanely. No one can seriously entertain the possibility that guards should be exempt from the rule of law. But it is misleading to consider that 'going to jail is itself a punishment', or that 'prisoners have only limited ability to change their circumstances' and are 'at the mercy of other inmates, prison guards and the system that put them there'. After all, 'they' put themselves there!

Imprisonment is a direct consequence of the choice to commit a crime, pure and simple. The limitation of freedom is not a punishment in itself but is a practical response (triggered by an offender's wilful act) to prevent risk to innocent members of society. Punishment is a result of the burden of guilt and how the criminal deals with that through the opportunities provided by imprisonment, for better or for worse. In essence it is the process of accepting and acknowledging responsibility for actions and choices.

Let's remind ourselves of the five criminals for whom their lawyer demands compensation. One was serving a life sentence for murder. He slashed the throat of his victim so savagely that the spine was exposed. Another was serving a term of seventeen years for serious violent offences, including aggravated robbery and wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.

The other three were serving sentences for a range of violent offences - two had convictions for aggravated injury and assault with a weapon arising from assaults on the Corrections' officers whose jobs require that they guard them. One of the applicants whose claim related to non-voluntary segregation issues was serving a sentence for a range of violent offences including rape, injuring with intent and assault on a Corrections' officer.

Convicted murderer Christopher Taunoa - earmarked for the largest payout - was regarded as the most disruptive prisoner at Paremoremo. He spent more than 700 days on a segregation regime and, as a result, was deemed to have been held for unlawful periods. It was found that these five inmates were unlawfully deprived of entitlements, given inadequate clothing and bedding, as well as routinely strip-searched.

While it's unclear what the extent of those deprivations were, a number of points should be raised; the first is that these criminals, by their violent actions posed a severe risk to other inmates as well as to Corrections' staff. To put them in the general prison population would be to risk the safety of others, surely an inhumane act?

While prisoners choose to commit crimes and, at least in that sense, choose to go to prison when apprehended, the safety and security of all must constitute a basic right and expectation.

The problem arises when some inmates put others at risk and must have increased restrictions including segregation, placed on them. Where segregation is the only viable option, it is in itself a response to a choice made by the criminal.

Allowing offenders to demand compensation is no more than allowing them to demand payment for their own violent choices. Seen in this light, it is an absurdity.

While brutality towards criminals can never be excused or tolerated, neither should crime be allowed to profit criminals. That would be a denial of justice to civil society; an absolute affront to the maxim that 'we reap what we sow'; and much too much to ask their victims to accept.


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