On 29 July, TVOne News broadcast an item reporting that the manager of Rimutaka prison, Mr Chris Burns, had banned me from entering the prison to conduct alcohol and drug assessments on inmates – because of criticisms I made about the Corrections Department in a newspaper article. I’m contracted to conduct these assessments by the Ministry of Justice – and I conduct similar assessments for the parole board.
When I need to interview a prisoner, I ring up the prison; make an appointment to see the inmate, and when I get there, I show my driver’s licence. I’ve been doing this for 13 years, and up till now, it has never been a problem.
Be a volunteer
But about two months ago, I was out at Rimutaka and one of the officers at the gatehouse said: “Mr Brooking. You come out here a lot, don’t you? We’ve got a new ID system for prison visitors. You need to fill in a form as a volunteer.” I told him I wasn’t a volunteer as I get paid by the Ministry of Justice. I thought that would be the end of the matter, but far from it.
Next day I received a phone call from the head of prison security. He repeated the story: “We’ve got a new ID system for prison visitors. You need to fill in a volunteer’s form .” I told him I wasn’t a volunteer too but he was equally unimpressed. He told me to download the form off the Department’s website and send it in.
It doesn’t pay to argue with prison management – so I did as I was told. I filled in my name and where it says: “Why do you want to volunteer with the Department of Corrections?” I wrote: “I don’t. I am not a volunteer. I’m contracted to the Ministry of Justice.”
Be a specified visitor
Two weeks went by. Eventually I received an email saying that since I was not a volunteer I should apply for a Specified Visitors ID. So I filled in another form. Another three weeks went by and then I was told to attend a “Getting Got” presentation at the prison – in a month’s time. Getting Got is a one hour power point presentation in which an officer explains how villainous prisoners are and how they will all try to corrupt visitors to bring in drugs, cell phones and other contraband. Having completed the formalities, I thought I was a shoo-in.
Another three weeks went by and then I received a letter from the prison manager, Mr Chris Burns. He said my application to be a Specified Visitor was declined because:
1) The comments you made in the Upper Hutt Leader 12 June 2013 edition, in which you are critical of the way the Department of Corrections operates in regard to stopping prisoners using cell phones in prison.
2) The fact that in the article mentioned above you admitted to breaching prison security procedures by using a 2 degrees cell phone in Rimutaka prison in 2011.
I thought – you must be joking! I never wanted to be ‘specified’ in the first place. I’d rather keep using my driver’s licence. So the following week I went out to interview another inmate, showed my licence, and got into the prison with no problem. But big brother was watching. The next day, I got another call from the head of prison security. He told me I’d been seen at the prison in breach of the ban.
Mr Burn’s letter said I couldn’t have the Specified Visitor ID; it didn’t say I was banned. The security chief explained to me, very politely, that Mr Burns had actually banned me from entering the prison – even though his letter didn’t say so. I told him – somewhat less politely – that New Zealand is a democracy, we have free speech and I can criticise the Department as much as I bloody well like.
I even explained that I made the phone call from the prison car park – not from inside the prison – and that when it comes to accusing someone of an offence, the Upper Hutt Leader is probably not a reliable source of information. The security chief was sympathetic but none of this common sense made any difference. He was just ‘following orders’ and I was still banned.
So I looked up the Department’s definition of Specified Visitor. It applies to those who provide “religious, spiritual or cultural support to prisoners” and specified visitors “must not receive any money, gratuities, rewards, gifts or benefits of any kind”. That ruled me out entirely – I could never be a specified visitor. What they were saying was that I couldn’t have a particular ID that I was never entitled to apply for in the first place – which makes the decision to ban me a legal “nullity”.
The reality is that as a contractor for the Ministry of Justice, I’m a Statutory Visitor and “Statutory visitors may visit a prison and have access to a prisoner(s) or staff at any time as long as the visit is consistent with the visitor’s statutory duties.”
In other words, I’m allowed to go into the prison “at any time” – except they won’t let me. Talk about ‘Getting Got’. In the end, it wasn’t the prisoners that ‘got’ me – it was the prison manager.