Ignoring basic needs in our jails a recipe for resentment

The sheer number of rules at boarding school invited rebellion. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
The sheer number of rules at boarding school invited rebellion. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
When I was told off for eating on the bus the other day, it made me grateful I am usually a goody two-shoes.

I wanted to make excuses. The crisps were a late afternoon impulse buy because I realised I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. Did the driver want to be responsible for me keeling over before I set forth up the hill from the bus? If there is to be no eating on buses why, in the past few days, had I observed a man wantonly eat a whole bag of beef jerky snacks and several children slurping on lollipops (I do not mean to infer the man ate the lollipop-eaters. I think that would have been questioned, and, frankly, greedy)? And, on this particular bus, I couldn’t see a sign about eating.

I didn’t say anything, of course. I just felt embarrassed, pretended he hadn’t been talking to me, and felt like I was back at boarding school.

There, the sheer number of rules invited rebellion. There were even rules about how you buttered your toast and bread (quarter by quarter and toast had to be broken, not cut). I dread to think how many dress requirements there were, including that the hem of any uniform should be no more than two and a-half inches off the floor when kneeling. Hair had to be tied up if it touched your collar, but if your ridiculously short pig tails were not tidy enough you might be pressed to get a haircut.

In my early days at the school, we were not allowed to wear school shoes in the dining room due to some concern about damage to the floor surface. When we came down the hill from school for lunch we had to head for our lockers and change our footwear before assembling for the meal. This rule was later relaxed without any noticeable effect on the lino. Going barefoot was forbidden in case we got verrucas or something worse.

The system supported bullying. The prefects had their own special hidey hole, the prefects’ sit, where they gathered and could dish out punishments. We third formers lived in fear of being " squashed" – summoned to the sit over a misdemeanour and subjected to the prefects picking us to bits over anything from our appearance to the quality of our parents, with the aim of reducing the hapless "turd" to tears. Somehow, I avoided this, but I vividly remember the injustice I felt when one of our number was squashed because she was suspected of throwing orange peel on the dining room roof. This feat could only have been achieved if the girl had been eating an orange in the dormitory and, you guessed it, eating in the dorm was banned.

I am not even sure the girl concerned was responsible for this heinous crime, but I always admired her for holding her tears at bay despite the prefects’ worst efforts. Maybe that incident had something to do with her going on to a career in mental health.

I have always imagined prison to be a worse version of boarding school. But need it be as appalling as it is?

If we want prisons to rehabilitate women, to make them feel they are worth something and can make changes in their lives, how does demeaning them by forcing them to request sanitary products help that process? In the recent report on the Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility, the Office of the Inspectorate was told by staff they limited the number of sanitary products "to avoid waste and reduce misuse of these items"(!) In some units, staff recorded the items provided to individual women. It was reported, too, that three weeks before the inspection there were no sanitary pads due to a distribution issue.

The report showed there were some good things happening at the facility, but as well as the sanitary supplies issue, bedding was inadequate and there was a shortage of clothing and underwear, particularly bras.

Poor bedding and inadequate clothing were also raised in a 2017 inspectorate report of the long-past-its-use-by date Waikeria Prison (damaged earlier this year in an incident involving a group of inmates reported to be protesting about conditions there). But two years later, when the ombudsman and his team turned up, those bedding and clothing issues remained. Is this good enough?

If prison authorities cannot recognise such basic needs and cater properly for them, can we have any confidence they can help anyone turn their life around? Isn’t it more likely they will release inmates who are more embittered and resentful?

I know the boarding school girl in me faced with such circumstances would want to cast off her goody two shoes and kick up a stink.

Elspeth McLean is a Dunedin writer.

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