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SocietyOctober 22, 2018

‘A real long path’: stories of lives locked up


First hand experiences of prison are shared in a new exhibition that provides an insight into the collateral consequences of incarceration.

Eighteen people from around Aotearoa have shared their stories with Justspeak and sat for 18 different portraits, displayed at Potocki Patterson gallery in Wellington and online.

It’s an opportunity to hear stories that are too often ignored or dismissed in the debate about how to transform our broken criminal justice system. A chance to acknowledge the ways in which even the shortest prison sentence can utterly change someone’s life, the life of their whānau, and their future. How it feels as though the cards are stacked against some people before they ever enter prison. And to hear from real people what it feels like to be one of the thousands of Māori who are locked up in our prisons and who are so frequently talked about just as a shameful statistic, not as humans with a past and a future.

Justspeak says it wants to ask New Zealanders how we can do better – how we can work together to build a justice system that is about prevention, not punishment.

For more details go here. Below are selections from interviews from three of the storytellers.


Image by Tabby Gabriel

Everything about me was impacted [by prison], my whole being, my whole belief system, my faith in the justice system, my faith in everything really. I felt physically sick by the amount of time they were trying to give me, I simply could not believe they were trying to pin me for five years for cannabis.

I kind of felt like what they were trying to do to me was more harm than me supplying cannabis to anybody, they ripped me away from my family, put me in prison and subjected me to the lifestyle in prison. I thought that was a whole lot worse than me supplying cannabis to my mates. The biggest impact of course was the separation of family, having been the main caregiver for my children, was huge. So for me to lose them, for them to lose me, it was the biggest impact I feel. Bigger than any prison sentence.

The biggest issue I found was that you could not be considered for parole unless you’d completed the Drug Treatment Unit. Which I thought was pretty crazy because rehabilitation in a negative environment like prison, under coercion, just doesn’t work, it simply does not work. You change because you want to change, not because you are being ordered to by Corrections in order for you to get out.

I think the biggest impact is the stigma that comes with it, the discrimination that comes when you get out. I was unemployed for three years after I got out. Applied for many jobs. Ended up becoming a solo parent again, but you know solo parent money is not that great and yeah I wanted to work and I wanted to contribute and I wanted to pay for my kids to do things. But I couldn’t get a job anywhere. New World, Maccas, and I tried all the the usual jobs. But the thing is I was always honest about my past – I’m a convicted drug dealer and I’ve spent time in prison – and I always say that quite openly. I’m sure that impacted on whether I got the job or not.

Being punished, is not working. And all you’re doing is exposing people to shit that’s going to give them PTSD … just going to prison is enough to give you PTSD. The things that you see and some of the sounds that you hear. I’ve witnessed things in prison that i would never have seen on the outside.  . seeing the type of level of violence and sexual assault is quite traumatic actually. Can only imagine what those men are going through right now, if they’re out.

It is clearly not working. I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones because I had the support, I had a house to go to and ultimately I ended up getting a job, so those are the three viable things you need in order to stay out of prison. Not everyone has that.


Image by Erika Pierce

When I came out what I felt was everywhere I tried to go, or tried to better myself or just do something, there was always that paper that had the “do you have a criminal conviction” and I’d be honest, and I was used to getting the x, x, x, so that’s where it came from – no matter what you do and no matter how long you’ve been inside, or how short – if you’ve got a conviction you’re going to get “exed”, it doesn’t matter. They don’t care how long you’ve been there, what you’ve been there for, you can’t get to places, and that’s been really hard.

Going to WINZ there was just so much stuff that I had to deal with in getting out, at that time I wasn’t worried about work and that so that didn’t come into the picture until a little bit later, but when it came, it came hard.  It was just dealing with, OK I’ve got my son, I’ve got these things that I have to do, if I don’t do them or I leave this place I’m gonna end up back inside – so I always had that hanging over my head. Of ‘do this this and this and if you don’t, you’re going to lose that boy and you’re going to end up back inside’.

There’s been a bit of an intergenerational thing and it started with mums generation as they were taken from my nan when they were young, they were taken from my nan. She had 8 kids at the time under ten and she was grieving and stuff, and the system looked at you not looking after your kids so they took all my uncles and aunties and my mum.  And that’s where they ended up from state wards, so they are part of that ward generation from the 60s/70s.  So, they’ve come through that, a result of that is them all ending up in jail.


Image by Vanessa Rushton

The massivest thing is your identity and your self-esteem. At a time where people leading healthy teenage lives are finding out … what fulfils you, what makes you feel good, what makes you feel like you have some value, you’re put in a place where the only way you can express your value is through anti-social means. So if you’re in [a youth justice residence] or similar, there’s very little things through which you can find your identity or your value in that community and those things are like violence, being good at crime.

There’s not really any positive ways to express your identity [in youth justice], they’re all antisocial and detrimental in the real world. In that way, it’s super unhealthy, especially for teenagers, who, at that time of their life that’s what it’s all about – learning and forming those sort of things around your identity and what your self-esteem is built on. So, coupled with that, it’s a fucking recipe for disaster to produce humans who can’t function in general society.

[I’m] still learning things like violence for example … I’ve been making a concerted effort for like maybe the last six, seven years of my life not to punch people who piss me off, because that’s the only way I knew how to deal with things, because I already had problems with how I felt about myself. I was like ‘Ah, these people appreciate that I’ll be violent on their behalf.’ It was perpetuated. I’ve been pretty well in that respect, but I don’t find myself in many situations where that could be a problem now, but I can’t guarantee that I won’t be in a situation and that won’t surface again.

I found school easy, I was smart, but I was super uninterested in being good at it. I wasn’t challenged, and .. too smart for my own good and I created my own fun and adventure when I was under-stimulated by school. So, I left pretty early,  and then … left to your own devices at that age, around other people experiencing difficulties at home and stuff, I ended up being kicked out of home at 14, so in order to eat and have things I was stealing and that sort of shit. Starting getting into CYFs homes; Epuni when it was YJ back in the day … corrective training, the boot camp, which they really brought back. And then, following that, [I went to] adult prison four times. Yeah, a real long path to becoming an adult or like a functioning adult, or a functioning, productive member of society type adult. It was a real long path from that because I didn’t find any real support apart from peers who believed in me. And to come back around now, I work with young people in a similar spot.

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