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Waikeria Prison a crisis in waiting


The end of the riot at Waikeria Prison and reason for it has led to strong calls for the reformation of the whole prison system.

Reactions to the six-day standoff, which only ended when 16 prisoners who had climbed on to a roof and set numerous fires surrendered, is mixed.

Many believe the prisoners — all said to be gang members with some Australian deportees — were a band of thugs who did immense damage and Corrections staff and police were weak to let things go on as long as they did.

In the other camp are those who believe the men were reacting to enduring conditions more like the infamous French prison Devil's Island.

The truth lies somewhere in between but the riot could have some benefits for the thousands incarcerated in this country as they have led to calls for an inquiry into the system or rather to implement recommendations already there.

Corrections has launched two inquiries into the incident and the police will also review it but that is not enough to satisfy those calling for an independent inquiry.

They include Human Rights chief commissioner Paul Hunt, who said the Ombudsman should carry out an independent inquiry.

“Let's see what an inquiry establishes but keep in mind the Ombudsman's team of investigators has been telling us for years conditions in many of our prisons are substandard and do not meet basic international human rights requirements, he said.

The Ombudsman published a report in August which said the Waikeria high security complex was no longer fit-for-purpose. The Government cancelled National's plans to build a new mega-prison.

Justice advisory group Just Speak and Amnesty International are also calling for an independent inquiry.

Last year the Government announced the $98m Hokai Rangi Maori Pathways programme to try to combat recidivism. More than 60 percent of prisoners reoffend within two years of their release. More than half are Maori.

Minister of Corrections Kelvin Davis said none of the protestors had complained about their living conditions through official channels.

But Maori leaders are questioning how many knew of their rights or how to access those channels.

Cynics say the prisoners have achieved their initial aim with Waikeria now largely destroyed and the inmates all moved.

But the whole prison system in New Zealand is no joke. Whatever people may think of the 16 prisoners, the system is in need of urgent review.