KELVIN DAVIS is a deeply conservative Minister of Corrections. His response to the Waikeria Prison Riot was one of cold fury, and if his behaviour in the House earlier this week is any guide, that fury has not subsided.
During Question Time on Tuesday, Davis arranged for a “patsy question” to be put to him concerning a pamphlet distributed among prisoners by People Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA). The group’s February newsletter praised the Waikeria rioters for “reforming the prison to the ground” and its authors quoted approvingly the Maori Party co-leader, Rawiri Waititi, for insisting that: “When injustice becomes law, defiance becomes duty.”
Davis’s parliamentary reply constituted a cutting reproof of Waititi’s words and actions: “I said from the beginning that politicians involving themselves in some Corrections matters would only serve to embolden and encourage more events that endanger the lives of prisoners and staff.”
There was more to the Minister’s reaction than mere rhetoric. Concerned that the content of the PAPA pamphlet was sufficiently inflammatory to “incite a riot”, the Department of Corrections passed it on to the Police.
This could prove embarrassing if the matter ever comes to court. The words attributed to Waititi were, as he himself acknowledged, very far from being his own. The quotation, “when injustice becomes law, defiance becomes duty”, is usually attributed to Thomas Jefferson, author of the American Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States, and was often to be found in the statements and speeches of the Black Civil Rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King. In his own words, Dr King also observed that “rioting is the language of the unheard”.
None of which cut any ice with Davis. Even after Rawiri Waititi had negotiated the peaceful surrender of the 17 prison rioters back in January, and personally led them to safety, the Minister of Corrections pointedly refused to acknowledge the role played by Te Paati Māori in bringing the six-day stand-off to an end. As he has done so often during his time as Minister, Davis very publicly aligned himself with the Department of Corrections and its staff, heaping praise upon their professionalism and backing their response to the uprising.
Davis’s deep-seated conservatism has undoubtedly contributed to this “my department right or wrong” approach to the fraught issues of crime and punishment. It is not, however, the correct ministerial response.
The real and constant danger of those charged with running our prisons behaving badly is recognised by the fact that all Members of Parliament are legally empowered to respond to the complaints of prisoners and must be given access to them. These powers would not have been conferred upon the people’s representatives, by the people’s representatives, if they had not recognised the potential for cruel and unusual punishments being inflicted behind high walls and razor-wire – where few sympathetic eyes are watching, and help is very far away.
Far from “politicians involving themselves in some Corrections matters” being a bad thing, their involvement – along with that of the Ombudsman – constitutes a necessary check upon the unreasonable and unlawful exercise of authority over prison inmates by prison staff. A Corrections Minister who lets it be known that he has his prison officers’ backs – no matter what they do, or have done – makes the correction of Corrections well-nigh impossible.
Just how far Davis has strayed from the path of impartial ministerial oversight was revealed in his response to a recent judicial finding that Corrections staff at Auckland Women’s Prison had treated inmates in a “cruel, degrading and inhumane manner”. (Note well, this is the judgement of a New Zealand court, formulated after hearing and weighing the evidence of both sides, and that it has the force of law.)
The Minister’s response to the judgement was shocking. Rather than holding the persons responsible to account and insisting that such behaviour must never happen again, the Minister instead opted to treat the judge’s findings as mere “allegations” and asked Corrections to provide him with “their side of the story”.
With the possible exception of the Ministry of Justice itself, no other agency of the state has more cause to respect and uphold the Rule of Law than the Department of Corrections. If Kelvin Davis cannot accept that prison staff, as well as inmates, must conduct themselves lawfully, then he should resign.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 February 2021.