SocietyMade possible by

Democracy Behind Bars: How Arthur Taylor is taking on the government from prison – and winning

Last year the notorious criminal Arthur Taylor successfully challenged  the government’s blanket ban on prisoners voting in elections. This week, the Court of Appeal is expect to rule on the Crown’s appeal – a decision which could have a significant impact on this year’s election result. Joe Higham talks to Taylor about his crimes, his challenge, and being a thorn in the government’s side.

This story first appeared in the Otago University Students Association magazine Critic – Te Arohi.

One night in late 2006, as he lay in bed at Mount Eden Prison in Auckland, Arthur Taylor, arguably New Zealand’s most famous living prisoner, had a vivid dream. Taylor, who currently still has six years left on his prison sentence, saw his wife “holding a beautiful little baby in her arms, breastfeeding it, and there was real love in her eyes.” Dreaming of your spouse and the life that lies beyond the thick walls that confine you is hardly unusual for prisoners, but conceiving a child whilst you’re behind bars presents a difficult task, even for someone with Taylor’s skillset. When he told his wife about the dream, she suggested he find a way of making the dream become a reality, and so he set about planning a way of smuggling his sperm out of prison.

When I ask how he actually managed to do it, Taylor responds in a careful tone: “I was in a unit that had a fridge with a freezer compartment and I had an officer who, ya know?”

If Taylor wants something done, he’ll find a way of getting it done, and the conception of his daughter is just one example. Many years ago, Taylor studied for a legal executive qualification, and although he passed with flying colours he “couldn’t get out of prison to sit the examinations,” so never actually graduated. But still, his greatest achievement to date, and he has had many, has been a legal one: his successful challenge in the High Court to the government’s blanket ban on all prisoners voting in elections, set out in the Electoral Amendment Act 2010. Prior to this amendment, only inmates serving sentences under three years had the right to vote. Since 2010, however, anyone who is in prison on election day is barred from voting.

That rule has created arbitrary distinctions with enormous consequences. For example, two people who commit the same crime in the week leading up to this year’s general election could be sentenced very differently; one could receive a month-long prison sentence (and therefore lose their right to vote in that election), while the other could receive a community service sentence lasting a similar period (and therefore retain the right to vote).

Arthur Taylor in one of his numerous court cases, defending himself.

Before Parliament even passed the bill, Attorney-General Chris Finlayson wrote in a report to Parliament that “the blanket disenfranchisement of prisoners appears to be inconsistent with Section 12 of the Bill of Rights Act and that it cannot be justified”. While the High Court’s recent judgment signals an increasing hope for the prisoner voting cause (even if the Crown’s subsequent appeal puts a dampener on it somewhat), the true importance of the judgement could be the doors it opens for other cases. Because the High Court’s judgement represents the first ever ‘declaration of inconsistency’ imposed by a New Zealand court, Taylor says it will “act as a chiller effect on Parliament, who now have to think, ‘shit, if we pass this legislation, will someone take us to court for breaching the BORA [Bill of Rights Act?’”

The original Appeals Court hearing was in October last year; the decision is expected this week. Taylor claims that the government appealed not necessarily because they thought they could win, but in order to “stall the decision beyond the next election” – a potentially astute political move from a National government, considering the power prisoners could potentially wield in the election. Were prisoners able to vote in the 2014 general election, for example, the result could have been significantly different. The Te Tai Tokerau electorate ended up being a two-horse race between Labour’s Kelvin Davis and Mana’s Hone Harawira (who had held the seat ever since claiming it in the 2005 General Election). The race came right down to the wire. Davis eventually won the seat by just 743 votes after the 22,000 total votes were counted.

The Te Tai Tokerau electorate is home to the Northland Regional Corrections Facility (Ngawha), which houses 548 prisoners, the vast majority “keen on the Mana Party … simply because they had very prisoner-friendly policies,” according to Taylor. “Imagine if Hone had got in [to Parliament], and he took a Mana list member,” Taylor hypothesises. “That’s two votes, that could’ve been the end of the [National Party] majority.”

A younger Taylor is bundled into a police car in handcuffs

If there’s one thing that defines Arthur Taylor, it’s recidivism. He’s been imprisoned for 38 of the last 40 years, mostly for violent and drug-related offending. But here’s another of Taylor’s defining characteristics: his ability to make the authorities look remarkably foolish, a skill he wielded long before his numerous legal challenges ever began. A particularly notable example is his most recent prison escape (not his most notorious – that would be the time when he and several others, including murderer Graeme Burton, escaped Paremoremo and holed up in a millionaire’s Coromandel bach) in 2005.

“I’d lost all the police, and I was down by the BNZ Bank building running on a roof there and unfortunately the bloody roof gave way and I crashed down onto a poor woman sitting on the toilet. I calmed her and asked if she needed a doctor and hung around, but she was in real shock … and [when she left the toilet] her boss asked why she had dust all over her. She told him what happened and then he said, ‘shit that’s why all the armed police are outside on the road. They might be looking for him.’”

Another time, Taylor was on the run for nine months, leading the police to launch a manhunt codenamed Operation Needle. “More like operation needle in a haystack,” says Taylor. He eventually “leased a camping ground from Kaipara District Council, and lived in the community [Dargaville], just fine.” He says this period was transformative; it proved to himself “that I could live without crime … and so long as you haven’t got that stigma of criminality out there with you it’s usually fine.”

Arthur Taylor in prison, talking to The Nation’s Lisa Owen via video link. Screengrab: newshub.co.nz

Taylor’s metamorphosis from career criminal to prisoners’ rights advocate occurred largely during the 13 months, including most of 2011, when he was interned in ‘Siberia’ – what New Zealand prisoners call segregation. The Department of Corrections set up the unit at Paremoremo specifically to house Taylor in order to deal with his increasing influence within the prison, according to an Ombudsmn’s report on his treatment. Upon his release from segregation, Taylor requested the report, which described his treatment during that period as “cruel and inhumane for the purposes of the UN Convention Against Torture”. The Department of Corrections “deliberately left lights on and [made sure] I had no power and no water for lengthy periods,” Taylor tells me. In hindsight, Corrections may look at this decision and think they played the wrong hand by segregating Taylor. It sparked a backlash within him which turned out to be far more dangerous than the behaviour they were attempting to suppress. If they considered his criminal pursuits to be an annoyance, his legal ones have tested them far more.

Media stories bemoaning the financial burden on the taxpayer from Taylor’s legal battles are far more common than ones focusing on the importance of the rights he is protecting. However the headline figures don’t tell the whole story. The figure of almost $370,000 given in this NZ Herald article is the cost the Crown must pay, which would be doubled if Taylor wasn’t representing himself in court (the winner of the case generally has their legal costs paid by the loser). Additionally, having lost the case, the government decided to appeal and by doing so they, not Taylor, increased the price tag. If one side is to be blamed for heaping this legal cost on the taxpayer, it can only logically lie at the Crown’s feet, especially considering it was they who set this case in motion by legislating inconsistently with the NZBORA.

Arthur Taylor in court

“[I] can’t go out and represent the unemployed or refugees, so I represent prisoners … I have the standing to do that because the courts have said I can,” Taylor says; he considers his “[legal] work a payback to society.” He tells me he sees the protection of prisoners, a mainstay of society’s bottom rung, as helping to protect the rest of us further up the chain. It is somewhat surprising that Taylor has been strong enough to not give up on society in the same way much of society has given up on him, and on prisoners more generally. While the rigid rules of the legal profession accommodate Taylor’s brazen advocacy, the same does not necessarily extend to general public, who are quick to blame the plaintiff for the costs to the legal system, despite the almost unanimous agreement in legal circles that the Crown are in the wrong in this case. For Taylor, the fight goes on regardless, because “if you breach the human rights of one person, then you’re breaching the human rights of all people. Human rights attach to us simply because we are human beings.”

When we spoke, his latest parole hearing was just a few days away. After telling me he was hopeful but cautious of the likelihood of his release, I asked what he would do the day he gets released. “I’d like to get together with my family and have a good catch up, a really nice meal, and a bottle of very nice wine.” He had organised accommodation, employment, and a comprehensive plan for his release. His specialist parole lawyer, Sue Earl, thought their presentation to the parole hearing was the best she had ever seen. But for the 18th time, his release was once again declined. Nevertheless, whether behind bars or not, Arthur Taylor has demonstrated the influence and intellect to cause the authorities serious problems, and he has fought for too long to give up now.


The Society section is sponsored by AUT. As a contemporary university we’re focused on providing exceptional learning experiences, developing impactful research and forging strong industry partnerships. Start your university journey with us today.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.