Wellington Scoop

Questions from behind the razor wire


by Michael Barnett
In my work as a budget advisor to low-income workers and beneficiaries in Wellington, I’ve been helping a middle aged, single man who I’ll call Happy (name changed to protect his privacy). Happy came to me in February for help to get his benefit sorted. He felt Work & Income were giving him the run around.

Happy explained that he had to quit his job due to illness and had been on a waiting list for surgery since September 2017. He was admitted to Wellington Hospital in March for an operation and spent April and May recovering and was anxious to find work. I secured an interview for him with a local construction company, he was offered a job, but the opportunity fell through when he failed a drug test. I continued working as his budget advisor and he came to regard me as his go to man to help with his problems.

Happy is an active and intelligent person, but like many individuals I have seen in his situation, boredom is a problem and alcohol and drugs are an outlet. Happy was prone to indulge in both. One day in July he had been drinking heavily, felt let down by a mate and apparently assaulted another of his drinking companions. Since then he has been held on remand in Rimutuka Prison; three months later as I write this story, he is still there awaiting a court hearing.

Happy is a likeable character and I took it upon myself to get in contact with him. I was soon to find out this is no easy thing.

I contacted the local police and was told I needed to enquire at the Department of Corrections. This I duly did. It was confirmed that he was in custody at the Rimutuka Prison. I was told to contact the prison and I would be given information on how to contact Happy and obtain visiting rights.

The system is understandably complex. First I was sent a form to complete explain my relationship to Happy and given a prison number to call and arrange a day and time to call and speak to Happy. This I did and we had a short conversation in mid September. Meantime, my application to secure visiting rights was processed, but it was not until late October that it was approved. I contacted the prison again and arranged to visit in the early afternoon of 29 October – the prison chose the day and time, not me.

Rimutuka is a high security prison in a rural setting near, but out of sight of, Trentham racecourse. My instructions were explicit. Arrive thirty minutes before the appointed time, and no items were to be carried beyond the visitor reception area. As I walked from the visitor parking lot, I was joined by a corrections officer reporting for duty. We had a pleasant chat, I explained that this was a first time visit to such an institution and I wasn’t sure what to expect. He explained that he often had difficulty explaining why he chose to work there. He said it was work he enjoyed and got a lot of satisfaction from.

To reach the inside of the prison one goes through a rigorous security process, starting at the visitor centre reception where I checked in. They had my details and I was instructed to place all items I was carrying in a small locker. All I had to deposit were my car keys and wallet.

Approximately fifteen minutes before the visiting hour, I with six others was summoned by another officer who identified himself as Gordon. He escorted us out of the visitor centre, across a courtyard and into a second building inside the razor wire, but outside the prison proper. We all went through an x-ray and security check of the form every air traveller would be familiar with. From there it was out on to another courtyard and into the prison proper. The outer door was closed and locked before the inner door was opened. Inside another reception area I was told to remove my jacket and hang it on a hook. All us visitors were also instructed to leave our locker keys on another set of wall hooks, to be recovered at the end of visiting time. This done we were led into the visitor lounge, a wide open room with anchored tables with three seats and one stool at each table. Each group found a table and we waited a moment, before four prisoners in orange jumpsuits (among them Happy) were led in.

Happy greeted me with a smile and a hug. “Thank you man for getting in touch with me. Only person that has,” he said. We sat and talked during the allotted visiting time and these are my key impressions:

1. Happy described his day saying he was confined to his cell for twenty-two and a half hours each day, with only two spells of 45 minutes morning and afternoon in the exercise yard. This seemed draconian – is it true? He said prison is far different than when he was last inside 8 or 9 years ago. Security much tighter, he said.

2. He seemed in remarkably good spirits given the conditions of his confinement and uncertainty of when he might get out. That is something I have observed in his character – a certain amount of resilience.

3. He talked about a bail hearing on 5 November, but perhaps he was confused. He gave me the name of a court appointed lawyer who will represent him.

4. He expressed concern about where he was going live if he got out on bail. He has lost his council flat and does not know what has happened to his personal possessions.

5. I asked about his Whanau; he said that they were all in Australia and I was the only person who had come to see him.

6. Finally Happy said that being inside has done him good. He was off the alcohol and drugs and he wanted to stay clean when he gets out.

After an hour, a prison guard came in and Happy and the three other inmates were escorted back to their cells. Then Gordon escorted the visitors back the way we came in. I recovered my keys and wallet, walked back to my car and drove home, pondering Happy and his situation.

My preconceived impressions of a prison environment had been dispelled to a certain degree. The facilities I saw were clean and modern. Gordon and other corrections officers I encountered were pleasant in manner, professional and certainly not of a brutish type one might have imagined. But I am left wondering: why do we mix individuals on remand awaiting trial, with hardened inmates already convicted and serving a sentence for their crimes? And why such harsh conditions of confinement – most inhumane in my book and contrary to international convention l suspect.

There is something wrong with a system that treats an accused the same as a convicted felon, and takes so long to organise a court hearing. And what of the wider social issue of how we deal with individuals at the lower end of the status tree? In my work as a budget advisor I have come in contact with many for whom daily life is a struggle to get by. The social and financial system does not cater well for them and there are many like Happy who use drugs and alcohol as an outlet for stress. Yet Happy has a work record going back many years and his misdemeanour was as much to do with frustration and boredom, as it was to do with taking out anger on a mate.


  1. lanz, 5. November 2018, 16:12

    good article i agree

  2. Curtis Nixon, 6. November 2018, 9:56

    Very sympathetic and intelligent piece Michael. It highlights for me the problem we have in New Zealand of a multi-generational underclass that the system is happy to throw on the trash heap, or in prison in this case. There are about 9% of working age people unemployed, many seem to act as a rota of clients for WINZ, Police, Corrections and the other bottom of the cliff social services. Their human rights seem more easily ignored than other kiwis, they are subject to harsh zero-tolerance policies, in this case, on remand in a cell for 22.5 hours a day when he hasn’t been found guilty of a crime. Everyone matters, every one deserves help when they need it.

  3. Ross Clark, 7. November 2018, 0:42

    “Poverty isn’t about lack of money as it is about lack of options”. Don’t know who said this, but it’s still true.

    Most Western countries suffer from the sort of thing Michael Barnett describes here.