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There have been moves to raise the minimum wage for prisoners working in Rimutaka Prison. Photo / Getty Images
When I was a baby journalist, or so they’re commonly called, one of my first chief reporters told me not to focus on stories on the three ‘ps’ – “poor people, prisoners, or pensioners”.
The reason was that depressing stories generally “bummed people out” and otherwise mainstream populations didn’t care about them. An existential crisis soon followed.
I suspect the situation has vastly changed as mainstream New Zealanders increasingly experiences poverty as a result of the rise of living costs, inflation and Covid-19. Then there’s the baby boomer population that are nearing retirement.
Prisoners have been making headlines too, with Green MP Golriz Ghahraman’s pledge to give prisoners full voting rights under her Electoral Strengthening Democracy Amendment Bill that was pulled out of the ballot in May.
The former human rights and criminal lawyer has always been interested in advocating for prisoner voting because it’s fundamental to a functioning democracy, she says.
“Democracy issues affect every policy area that we engage with, if democracy is broken or it’s unfair or unequal to certain groups it means we don’t have adequate representation to respond to those interests in what we do in government.
“We know that Maori and poor people are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and it’s those people who need rights and representation more than most. Decisions tend to be stronger when more people are participating in the process.”
For context, the Government adopted part of the bill during its last term in government, which extended the right of voting to prisoners if they were sentenced to three years or less. Ghahraman couldn’t see sense to the arbitrary bar of three years.
So too did the Human Rights Commission, The Waitangi Tribunal, and the Supreme Court as per the legendary case involving former long-term prisoner Arthur Taylor that found the current legislative framework was inconsistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.
The jobs that pay 20c an hour
Tangentially, there have also been moves to raise the minimum wage for prisoners working in Rimutaka Prison, which currently sits at 20-60 cents an hour. Livingston & Livingston founder Digby Livingston has been leading the charge as part of his work as a Borrin Foundation community law fellow.
The usual arrangement is if prisoners meet good behavior requirements they can be eligible to grease the wheels of the prison machine, as it were. The positions that are highly sought after, he says, include cleaning, cooking, gardening, and maintenance of the prison facility. The pay tends to range between 20 and 60 cents an hour.
Currently the rate is determined by the fact prisoners are considered volunteers under the Employment Relations Act.
Why do prisoners want to do the work? “Prison would be so boring if you didn’t, otherwise it’s good for your record, and a bit of spare cash allows you to buy noodles from the tuckshop or a phone card to call your kids,” he says.
Suppose prisoners don’t want to buy noodles or phone cards, the cash – which for a 35-hour week could be just $7 dollars at 20 cents an hour – goes into a prison trust account. Interestingly the Corrections operations manual places a cap of $200 that can be in a trust account at one time.
“The system is polarising. Some say prisoners shouldn’t be paid at all if they go to prison but why should we be exploiting a group of people that are arguably disadvantaged by life to begin with?
“And what if the 10,000 or so working prisoners decided to drop their tools and unionise? I think it’s one of those weird things where it seems normal but when you examine the situation it seems deeply unfair.”
Where to from here? Livingston plans to conduct six months’ worth of research to see the difference in rates, the situation overseas, and whether prisoners should be considered an employee under the Employee Relations Act. He doesn’t know what will come of the research but it would be fantastic to then present it to Corrections or even the Government for consideration, he says.
Restorative justice is increasingly in vogue too, where if we’re meaningfully wanting to provide wraparound services so that prisoners can integrate back into the community, it’s time we start thinking about affording them rights that allow them to flourish over draconian punishing practices, he says .