Exterior view of a prison yard and guard towers, backdrop of native bush
Paremoremo maximum security prison, 20 years ago (Photo by David Hallett/Getty Images)

Arthur Taylor: What it’s like to be strip searched in prison

In an excerpt from his new book Prison Break, Arthur Taylor explains how strip searches work in prison – and how, three years ago, he pushed back.

A word from Spinoff Books editor Catherine Woulfe:

This is an extremely impressive memoir. It’ll be in the bestseller charts for ages, and maybe even make an appearance at the Ockhams.

Written with Stuff reporter Kelly Dennett, there are moments of vivid descriptive writing – see the start of the excerpt below – as well as rollicking escape yarns, court dramas, strange little love stories; stories about a life spent largely inside prison, or breaking out of them.

It’s not a morally straightforward read. Taylor feints, dodges, winks: there are crimes he’s not been pinned down for and doesn’t intend to be. He’s cagey about his finances. There are crimes he has committed that he doesn’t want you thinking about too much, and has compartmentalised for himself. But then there’s a heartbreaking backstory in which an 11-year-old Taylor is picked up for repeated truancy and carted off to Epuni Boys’ Home. “The unfairness of it came to plague my whole life,” he writes. 

Holding the book together is that sense of a psyche profoundly wronged, and the drive to put some things right – like prisoners being strip searched for no good reason. 

Cover of the book Prison Break, with a head and shoulders selfie of a middle-aged man wearing a camo t shirt and cap, and pounamu.

Arthur Taylor and his memoir (Photo: Supplied)

Take your shirt off and hand it to a guard for them to inspect the cotton. Lift both arms up, overhead. Turn, like a ballerina. Open your mouth, poke out your tongue. Move it up and down. Put your shirt back on. Take off your shorts and underwear. The three guards will inspect these, too.

Lift your penis, your testicles, let their eyes wander over your body. Turn. Squat. You’re bending at the knees until your arse is close to the ground. You’re exposed. They will leer. 

It’s not over yet. Shorts back on as the three guards exit the cell. At the entrance to the landing a group of officers, more than 10 of them, will watch as I’m ordered to spread-eagle against a wall while a portable metal-detector wand is run over my weaponless body. I lift my feet to let the detector be run over the soles of my footwear. Humiliating. Intimidating. Illegal. 

Back in October 2016 while my fight for the vote was going on, three prison officers at Paremoremo were badly assaulted by four inmates in C block, which housed maximum-security prisoners. By this time I’d been moved to the lower-security unit, A block. 

The assault should never have happened. One of the inmates had requested something, and when the officer opened the door to pass the item through, three other prisoners appeared and pushed the door open. Two of them had home-made shanks, and stabbed two of the guards with them. Other screws joined the melee; one officer was carted off to hospital and the other three treated on-site. The inmates had three weapons on them in all, one of which had been made out of a supposedly tamper-proof metal bracket for a television. 

When dealing with maximum-security prisoners, there’s a basic rule to follow: whenever they are out of their cells, you have three officers present for each inmate. You can’t open the door without strict instructions. Sure, these guards had fucked up, but they didn’t deserve to get hurt. Most of the other prisoners didn’t agree with, or condone, the violence.

The guards thought that two of the inmates responsible seemed drunk. A plastic bag of fruit and liquid was recovered. The guards figured that they’d been drinking homebrew, though that was never proven because they never bothered testing the bag for alcohol. (Homebrew, alcohol made from fruit and sugar, is easily made in prisons, though the banning of the yeast-based Marmite stymied this enterprise somewhat. Inmates can have up to nine pieces of fruit in their cell, though, and have a daily ration of sugar.)

Typically, prison manager Tom Sherlock’s instinct was to lock the prison down, which meant that every prisoner was confined to their cell. A few days later, Sherlock decided that every prisoner, including those in the special needs unit but not those in the management and at-risk units, should be searched for evidence of weapons or homebrew. It wasn’t long before three officers marched up to my cell in A block and told me I was to be strip-searched. It was ludicrous. The assailants had nothing to do with us in A block, and it made no sense that I’d be hiding fruit or modified TV brackets between my butt cheeks. I could understand them strip-searching the prisoners that were involved, or even the other ones on their block. But our wing was the farthest you could get from them. 

No matter how much a prisoner argues, front-line staff still carry out their orders. It’s useless trying to deter them. The Corrections Regulations 2005 provide that if a prisoner is aggrieved by a lawful order, then he/she must obey it and complain later. If you refuse to obey an order, it will likely result in you being physically overpowered, and put in painful wrist locks and choke holds. 

So now, these screws were in my cell saying, “We’ve got to do it.”

“No. Listen, you’ve got metal detectors, you’ve got hand-held scanners, you’ve got X-ray machines, you’ve got everything. Why do you need to do a strip-search, and what are you looking for anyway?”

“We can’t tell you, Arthur, we’ve just been ordered to strip you. That’s all we know. We’ve got to do what we are told.”

“That defence isn’t going to wash. When Nazis tried to claim they were only obeying orders for chucking people in the gas chamber, they still got tried at Nuremberg.”

But it was all above their heads. They were just following orders.

I’d been strip-searched dozens of times over the years, but this time there was no rhyme or reason to it and I felt dehumanised and vulnerable. It was akin to someone wandering into your home and ordering you to take all your clothes off. Prisoners have got so few rights and dignities. I try to reinforce their sense of self-worth in the hope that they will respect others. They have to feel good about themselves, to feel that they’ve got some worth and value – but prisons operate to undermine, to tell them they’ve got no rights, to tell them they’ve got no dignity, and it’s extremely counterproductive. 

Strip-searching is a quick way to degrade a prisoner. Prison officers don’t like doing it (although some nasty ones do), and I find it particularly offensive in relation to women. The Canadian courts have likened strip-searching to visual rape. Not too long ago we had a case where 15 women prisoners were paid $25,000 each in compensation for unlawful internal searches. This time, it needed to be reinforced to Corrections: You can’t do this. 

Sometimes you’ve got to draw a line in the sand and whatever the cost you’ve got to fight, even though it’s going to be extremely disadvantageous for you. 

More than 200 prisoners had been searched, and none of those searches produced anything from their persons, although some cell searches did – two shanks, a blade, and a container of homebrew. I wrote to the chief executive of the Department of Corrections pointing out what had happened and explaining to him the relevant law, the relevant section in the Corrections Act. I asked him to take legal advice and said that I was holding him liable, that the prisoners who had been strip-searched wanted an apology and they wanted some monetary compensation. That letter was sent about December.

The strip-search case came before Justice Mary Peters at the High Court at Auckland in March 2018, 18 months after the search. Tui Hartman was my McKenzie friend. 

Tui Hartman was a 32-year-old paralegal living in Ontario, Canada, whose father was a Kiwi. Canada has similar laws to ours, so Canadian law students study a lot of my cases. New Zealand law professors teach them in law school, too. One day she rolled a dice and sent me a Facebook message to ask some questions about the law. She was shocked when I answered her. 

We struck up a conversation, and then we got her telephone number put on my list so we could talk to each other. (As a prisoner, you can only call certain phone numbers that have been approved by Corrections.) We continued to correspond and in January 2018 she moved to New Zealand.

Tui visited me regularly in prison, driving hours each way. She loved the outdoors. We were briefly engaged, but we didn’t marry. The police called her regularly, warning her off, so I said, “You can’t be subjected to this sort of nonsense – we’d better split up and have a bit of distance for a while.” She ended up working for the police in a data-entry job. We’re still in touch. 

It was a rather unusual relationship, but these things happen. There’s no accounting for matters of the heart. 

Even though it was short-lived, my romance with Tui attracted a lot of attention. I didn’t mind, because I like to be an open book. I’m on Facebook all the time, which people think is unusual. I say, if I was in the underworld – and that’s why it’s called the underworld, because you fucking keep everything secret – I wouldn’t want you knowing where I am and what I’m doing. Instead, I’m open all the time. But that still doesn’t change the way the police or Corrections behave. They’ve got certain things lodged in their heads and they’re determined to prove them right no matter what.

In this case, Phillip John Smith and I had joined action to complain that the search was unlawful, unreasonable, in breach of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and inhumane and undignified. We wanted a declaration that the search was unreasonable and sought compensation of $10,000 each. 

I love cross-examining Corrections staff because they’re not used to having to justify themselves. Once you get them on the stand and are asking “Well, why did this happen – what’s your statutory justification for this?” they can’t answer. Here’s a snippet of my cross-examination with old Sherlock. 

“At the time you ordered the search of both Mr Smith and myself, the strip-search, not the search of ourselves, the strip-search of our person, you had no information whatsoever that suggested we were in possession of any weapons or items that could be used to make weapons?”

“No.”

“At the time you ordered the strip-search of myself and Mr Smith, did you have any information whatsoever that Mr Smith or myself were in possession of any unauthorised items?”

“No.”

“Did you give any consideration, whatsoever … as to myself and Mr Smith’s individual circumstances before you ordered that strip search of us?”

“As individuals, no.”

This was significant. We argued that the search was unlawful because there was no belief that either Smith or I had an unauthorised item in our possession, let alone a belief held on reasonable grounds. 

It took two years from the event itself, but in September 2018 Justice Peters ruled that the strip-searches were unlawful, unreasonable and a breach of the Human Rights Act. Those who had joined me in the action, including Phillip John Smith, were paid $1000 each. 

I’ll tell you a story about Phillip John Smith, convicted of molesting a child, then murdering the child’s father, before escaping to Brazil while on temporary release. When he came back from his little stint in South America, the word went around prison that you could virtually kill him with impunity and the authorities wouldn’t care. To me it looked like they had transferred him to where someone could get at him. 

I had to put a stop to this chatter about knocking him off, because he was a very smart cookie. I had received 100% assurances from him that he would never re-offend in that manner again. My choice was either to go along with the screws’ propaganda, or identify Phillip’s good points that could be used for the common good of all prisoners. When they saw that he was working with me on the strip-search case, all the heat came off him. Those strip-searches might well have saved his life.

Prison Break: The extraordinary life & crimes of New Zealand’s most infamous escapee, by Arthur Taylor with Kelly Dennett (Allen & Unwin, $36.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington




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