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.
One of the biggest hindrances to putting any pressure on Davis, and in general the cause of prison reform is the self righteous idiocy of the like of PAPA.
To read through their material is to collide with jargon ridden ramblings of people who clearly believe a bit of abstract theory and a string of buzzwords beats seriously thinking through complicated issues, so long as you convince yourself it’s enough to be on the ‘right’ side of a binary argument.
They make the job of any serious and reasonable reformers neigh on impossible.
What is going on behind the scenes with Davis and his department? The reason I ask is that there is the presumption that everything that has happened, is happening and has been said is what we see assembled on here.
It's the sort of attitude and perspective of "Minister so-and-so is doing nothing or is lazy" because they aren't on tv every night, being interviewed on radio every day and in other media daily.
...argon ridden ramblings of people who clearly believe a bit of abstract theory and a string of buzzwords beats seriously thinking through complicated issues, so long as you convince yourself it’s enough to be on the ‘right’ side of a binary argument.
Well put. The way forward is to have a rant about the badness of everything, stamp around the place and swear quite a lot, and then settle down to forming a plan of action. Seeing what is, what can be done about it, who would be a good advisor/sounding board - and not a wet blanket - and who would have mana and energy for tackling the situation so there can be an upward trajectory from the present morass. Then how best to bring the scenario to whomever on both sides, and how to captivate the mind of the various officials and apply pressure in limited doses appropriately.
Love and reason need to run together if we are to get in the first three places in the three-legged race.
Chris - perhaps Davis is afraid of the accusation of 'wokeness' and the backlash that you (and others) insist will follow if the government displays any of the symptoms of wokeness, such as being 'soft' on prisoners. To put it bluntly, I don't really see how you can blame him for effectively following your own advice.
(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.)
I would be skeptical as skeptical as I am of the BSA, RNZ, whatever. Judges and lawyers suck.
AB That comment of yours illustrates the problems that people with 'woke' thinking have with judgment. So convinced are all of rightness and righteousness, so much the progenitors of a new value system that is to be tailored to fit 'woke' purist requirements, that any discussion becomes a time for either patronising (as of a child's efforts at perception), derision or prohibition. The remedies for the ills grow in demand to excess, and lead to other ailments.
In my earlier comment 'jargon' was reduced to 'argon'. Being interested in learning I looked it up. It could be quipped that Davis is lacking in 'argon', which is a 'noble' gas. We could certainly do with more nobility in NZ politics and less self-centred disdain for good human values, our souls and spirituality instead of this horrid hard materialism we are forced to writhe in like mental mud wrestling.
argon - noun: argon; symbol: Ar
the chemical element of atomic number 18, an inert gaseous element of the noble gas group. Argon is the commonest noble gas, making up nearly one per cent of the earth's atmosphere.
Post a Comment