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Peter Williams QC speech against Mt Eden Prison


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Below is the text of a speech by Mr Peter Williams QC, President of the New Zealand Howard League For Penal Reform, speaking on Saturday the 9th December, at the Methodist Aotea Chapel, Queen Street, Auckland.

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An Indictment against the Corrections Department charging Culpability in Respect of the Death of Shannon Leonard.

Last Sunday, the third day of December, Shannon Bevan Leonard hanged himself at Mt Eden Prison. His prison conditions were cruel and inhumane.

He was incarcerated in a tiny shabby cage within the prison walls with a plastic bucket to defecate into. ShannonÕs routine was to spend 18 hours per day alone in this medieval dungeon, with access during the remaining hours to a souless small exercise yard with no amenities except an open toilet. The judge who sentenced Shannon said he needed help more than punishment.

Shannon came from a grossly deprived background and left the school system long before he was 15 years old. He graduated through the school drop out, street kid, juvenile delinquency scene, and at the age of 19 arriving at the notorious Mt Eden Prison.

After five months of physical abuse he asked for protection and was placed in a cell, where after five days of solitary confinement, he decided death was preferable to the living hell, the Corrections Department was providing for him. His over-all treatment by the Corrections Department was both cruel and inhumane.

It should be emphasized that no effort was ever made, to give this 19 year old under privileged youth, some form of educational rehabilitation or self esteem programme.

The prison embodies the largest power the Government exercises over its citizens, in time of peace. By law, prisoners are entitled to a reasonably safe, clean environment. They must be spared cruelty; cruelty being defined as violations of their bodily and psychological integrity, beyond the legitimate necessities of their punishment.

Our NZ Bill of Rights Act states as follows:

Section 9 Ð Everyone has the right not to be subjected to torture or to cruel, degrading, or disproportionately severe treatment or punishment.

and

Section 23 (5) Ð Everyone deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the person.

In the case of Shannon Leonard, our Corrections Department was grossly in breach of the laws of our country and must be held fully responsible and legally blameworthy for the death of Shannon Leonard, just as if he were murdered by that department.

The celebrated NZ criminal lawyers, Marie Dyhrberg and Barry Hart, have both recently stated on nation-wide television that the fault of our criminal justice system lies not merely in a rotting edifice like Mt Eden being used to house prisoners, but in the very system itself. And they are both correct.

80% of our prison population need help not punishment. They do not need incarceration in prisons where they are presently being further indoctrinated in both the ethos and skills of criminality. These young people need help in a variety of ways, but particularly in the following respects.

1 - educational skills

2 - residential accommodation e.g. Israeli kibbutz

3 - life skills training

4 - leadership and inspiration

Our present criminal justice system is out of control. On the one hand it is promoting the proliferation of criminal offences, through its brutal prison system, and on the other hand, on the back of prison inmates, it has built an exquisite hierarchy of magnificently paid jobs for lawyers, judges, police officers and government bureaucrats.

I conclude by reading two verses from a poem by Oscar Wilde, called "The Ballad of Reading Gaol".

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

The vilest deeds like poison weeds,
Bloom well in prison air;
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the warder is Despair.

Each narrow cell in which we dwell
Is a foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
In Humanity's machine.


P.A Williams QC

9th December 2000


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