Rooftop Rebellion at Waikeria

Smash the Prison System!

16 January 2021

A six-day protest and occupation at Waikeria Prison over the turn of the new year delivered a blow to New Zealand’s rulers, defying the government and exposing the disgraceful state of the country’s prison system.

In response to abysmal conditions in decrepit buildings past due for demolition, on 29 December prisoners began to light fires in the exercise yard of the maximum-security section of the jail, refusing to cooperate with prison staff. During the night, 19 inmates made it onto the roof where they set mattresses on fire, visible in the night sky 10 km away. Sixteen prisoners remained on the roof until 3 January, at times denied food and water and facing sponge (rubber) bullets intended to bring them down.

The rebelling prisoners issued a manifesto via the Facebook page of People Against Prisons Aotearoa:

We are not rioting.
We are protesting.
We have showed no violence towards Corrections officers - none whatsoever — yet they show up here in force armed with guns and dogs to intimidate us.
We are the ones that are making a stand on this matter for our future people. Showing intimidation to us will only fuel the fire of future violence. We will not tolerate being intimidated any more.
Our drinking water in prison is brown. We have used our towels for three straight weeks now. Some of us have not had our bedding changed in five months. We have not received clean uniforms to wear for three months — we wear the same dirty clothes day in and day out. We have to wash our clothes in our dirty shower water and dry them on the concrete floor. We have no toilet seats: we eat our kai [food] out of paper bags right next to our open, shared toilets.
These are only very few of the reasons for the uprising.
We are tangata whenua [indigenous people] of this land. We are Māori people forced into a European system. Prisons do not work! Prisons have not worked for the generations before! Prisons just do not work. They keep doing this to our people, and we have had enough! There is no support in prison, all the system does is put our people in jail with no support, no rehabilitation, nothing. We have had enough.
This is for the greater cause.

The specific complaints rather precisely echo the deficiencies noted in an August 2020 report of the Ombudsman, Peter Boshier, after a team from his office made an unannounced visit to Waikeria. That report revealed that conditions in various parts of the jail were “degrading”, “unsanitary” and “deplorable”.

Jacinda Ardern’s “kind and caring” regime clearly does not extend to the jails. Rebellion was necessary.

Cycle of oppression and incarceration

Under capitalism, the prison system is a fundamental part of the repressive apparatus of the state. Parliament is effective only because its decisions are ultimately enforceable through imprisonment, so loss of control in a prison is a potential threat to the whole system of government.

New Zealand has one of the highest incarceration rates in the developed world, with more inmates per capita than Australia or Britain. Prisoners are often expected to work for wages as low as 20 cents an hour (, 24 April 2018). Conditions are crowded, and the numbers are rising, fed by social decay, poverty and the housing crisis, with the growth of an underclass disconnected from mainstream economic and social institutions who turn to gangs and crime as an alternative to atomisation and unemployment.

This is particularly the case for Māori, who are affected by pervasive racism, higher unemployment rates and the increasing class polarisation of Māori society as a growing bourgeoisie and professional elite leave the poor behind. Although only 15 percent of the total population, Māori make up more than half of prison inmates.

Gang competition and recruitment play a significant role in prison life, and the Waikeria rebellion is no exception. This includes a cohort of New Zealanders who went to Australia as young children and were brought up there, only to be deported back when they ran afoul of the Australian legal system. A majority of the Waikeria rebels on the roof were members of the newcomer Australian-led Mongol and Comanchero motorcycle gangs, and five were themselves deportees from Australia.

The drug trade is key to this. Distributed through the gangs, methamphetamine (meth, crystal meth, P, ice, tina) has spread dramatically in New Zealand over the last 20 years as the recreational drug of choice among huge layers of the disconnected. In the last four years, two shipments of over 500 kg and many others in the 200–400 kg range have been intercepted.

The social and health harms caused by drugs are undoubted, but they cannot be legislated away. Quite the reverse — banning drugs is the cause of most of the damage to health, as it disconnects users from society and builds a violent drug-trading subculture. A vicious circle of crime, racism, drugs and gangs is accelerated in prison hothouses. Decriminalise all drugs!

Reform is never enough

Defeat of the rebellion was inevitable, of course, and might have been bloody. Outflanking the Labour Party Māori caucus, the surrender of the remaining protesters was negotiated by Rawiri Waititi, one of the two parliamentary representatives of the Māori Party, which has swung from support for the centre-right National Party government in 2008–17 to a left-reformist posture. Although their fate and punishment are not yet known, the protesters did succeed in leaving the “top jail” facility in a state that the authorities have finally deemed not fit for human habitation.

The Labour government is aware of the growth in prisoner numbers, poor conditions and mounting tensions, and has given ministerial responsibility over prisons to a senior Māori member of parliament, Labour deputy leader Kelvin Davis. He claims:

“Our Government is committed to improving the situation for prisoners in New Zealand, including investing $98 million to work in partnership with whanau, hapū and iwi to reduce the rates of Māori reoffending; ditching the American-style mega prison planned by the previous National Government at Waikeria; giving mental health and addiction services for offenders a $128 million boost and launching Hōkai Rangi, a new strategy designed to address the long-term challenge of Māori reoffending and imprisonment.”
—Government press release, 3 January 2021

Little progress has been made on the actual conditions of prisoners since Labour took power in 2017. Davis made no visit to the prison during the protest or any attempt to comment on the issues being raised, claiming to distrust the prisoners’ stated reasons for taking a stand.

On the wider issues, Labour did not even have the courage to advocate decriminalisation of cannabis in the recent referendum, let alone meth and other stronger drugs. Labour cannot tackle the prison problem because it cannot transcend reformism. Davis is working in the interest of maintaining the system, tinkering around the edges to make it seem a little less oppressive.

It is notable that the rebels’ manifesto highlights their status as “Māori people forced into a European system”. Both Davis and prominent Māori Party figures have at times advocated a separate prison system for Māori based on “Māori values” (RNZ, 9 May 2017). Incarcerating Māori in a separate penal system would change nothing — the institutions would remain part of the brutal repressive apparatus of capitalism. Prisons benefit only the ruling class and do significant damage to the Māori, Pasifika and Pākehā working class.

Prison overcrowding, filthy living conditions and inhumanity must be opposed, and we respect and support the stand of the Waikeria rebels for relief from their conditions and, as they put it, “for the greater cause”. At times, such struggles will be successful in achieving some amelioration, but incremental reforms will not suffice. Only a revolutionary perspective can truly address the prison problem.

The prison system is an integral part of the bourgeois state, the repressive apparatus that maintains capitalist property forms and protects the ruling class. As such, it cannot be reformed — it must be smashed along with the rest of the capitalist state. A revolutionary socialist assault on the prison system and the wider social order it defends requires a mass revolutionary party of the working class serving as a beacon of hope for all those targeted by bourgeois “justice”.

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