Who could have predicted the stand-off at Waikeria prison? Absolutely anyone, writes Emilie Rākete of People Against Prisons.
The Waikeria uprising protesters have come down safely from the rubble of the prison unit they destroyed. The last smouldering embers have been extinguished. As a member of the prison abolitionist group People Against Prisons Aotearoa, I spent a week in contact with the whānau members of the Waikeria protesters. For now, there will be no more late-night calls about armed offenders squad midnight raids, no more petitions to organise. Now the uprising is over, the smoke of the burning prison has drifted out from Waikato, dissolved, merged with the rain clouds and bathed us all.
During the uprising, People Against Prisons Aotearoa did what we could to support the protesters’ family members. We did this because these people deserved to be listened to. Whatever the outcome of the fistful of government inquiries about to occur, we know that the Waikeria uprising happened because people weren’t heard. The whānau weren’t heard when they complained about solitary confinement in Waikeria Prison. The protesters weren’t heard when they complained about revolting conditions in the upper jail unit. And People Against Prisons Aotearoa wasn’t heard, in 2018, when I told Kelvin Davis that Waikeria was on the brink of revolt.
Reading the latest report into Waikeria Prison from the ombudsman, the kāwanatanga’s complaints commission, it isn’t hard to understand why, out of all the prisons in the country, an uprising began here. The cells were poorly ventilated, with asthmatic prisoners struggling to breathe in the summer heat. The building in which the uprising took place was a hundred years old, allowing little natural light. Inspectors found barren bedding storerooms with just a few stray items, yellow and brown with stains. One kaiwhakamana visited every fortnight; beyond this there was no provision of cultural services. Half of all prisoners struggled to see a doctor. Three quarters said their mental health was unsupported. The water people drank and bathed in was brown. Silty. These are some of the most dire conditions found in New Zealand prisons: in my professional estimation as a criminologist, Waikeria was a shithole. A place for people to rot. In a place like this, even the cleansing waters taste like dirt.
During the height of the confrontation, whānau members of the Waikeria uprising protesters contacted People Against Prisons Aotearoa asking if we would carry a message for them. In our inbox was the Manifesto of the Waikeria Uprising. This document confirmed not only what I already knew about Waikeria Prison, but also what I have long argued of the prison “reform” process. In the manifesto, the protesters argue clearly that their living conditions in Waikeria were disgusting, that all other efforts to change those conditions had failed, and so they were burning the unit down to take a stand for future generations.
That the Waikeria uprising protesters gave up on the writing of complaints, on the conducting of inquiries, on the issuing of reports and just torched the unit might seem a drastic decision. But they have also succeeded where everyone else has failed. All the horrors described in the manifesto have been a verified matter of public record since the first ombudsman’s report into Waikeria in 2018. Nothing changed. And so all the complaints that Corrections ignored, all the reports that sat on some bureaucrat’s desk, became kindling for the uprising. The kāwanatanga showed us that it could not reform the prison, and so the uprising reformed the prison to the ground.
There’s probably nobody on the planet who doesn’t think prisons should be better. In his book Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault provides us with some of the common arguments for reforming prisons: that they do not diminish crime rates, that those leaving prison are more likely to be reimprisoned, that prison creates people used to fear and arbitrary punishment, that it actually encourages the formation of gangs, that having been imprisoned causes lifelong hardship, and that the families of prisoners are negatively affected. These familiar refrains, repeated often today, Foucault takes entirely from sources published in the 1800s. We have been reforming prisons for centuries and the problems are the same. The solutions are the same. The failure of these solutions is the same. You can’t reform something away from its basic purpose, and the basic purpose of prisons is violence. Violence against the poor, violence against Māori. This fact is so obvious I don’t even need to tell you the statistics; you already know them.
Against the repetitive death march of reformism, the manifesto of the Waikeria uprising points to an abolitionist future grounded in tikanga Māori. Prisons do not help people now, and they have not helped generations past. The prison population began booming in the mid-1980s, in response to neoliberal economic reforms that devastated working class communities. Before then, prison populations would boom whenever Māori struggles for national liberation flared up, decolonial prisoners of war snatched from the armies of Titokowaru and Te Kooti or the non-violent resistance at Parihaka. In each case, the continued existence of capitalism has depended on imprisoning problem populations. When the war was open, it was those Māori who insisted on retaining our land who had to be locked up. Now that the war is hidden, submerged, it is the segments of the working class made most desperate and deprived by neoliberalism who must be contained. Prison provides a pressure valve, a way to dispose of the people whose lives capitalism makes impossible. When the pressure is too great, even this fails and the implicit violence of the class war is given vent in a towering column of steam.
This contradiction scars the heart of our society. I can’t lay out how to resolve it in one article. I can only sketch the genealogy of this one incident, follow one stream back to its source. It’s my hope that by tracking the trickle, tracing the path of the poison, I can show you from where it seeps. The Waikeria uprising wasn’t spontaneous. Neither was it random. The protesters took action because they saw that the past, present and future of the prison is a bog, swollen bodies floating in the muck. The failures of capitalist society spilling from every rusted tap and faucet. An impure flow. Dirty water. How long could you be made to drink it? The decolonial communist Frantz Fanon said that “we revolt simply because, for a variety of reasons, we can no longer breathe”. And we revolt when we can no longer drink.
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