Smashed by the state: The kids from Kohitere

by RNZ / 18 February, 2017
Photo: RNZ / Albie Epere

Politicians are fond of calling for gangs to be smashed, but many gang members have already been smashed by the state - when they were children, writes RNZ's Aaron Smale.

On the fringe of Levin, Cd Farm Road leads into nondescript farmland. About halfway along is a cluster of derelict buildings. There is nothing to suggest their significance.

One is an old school house. It is home to cooing pigeons. Their faeces covers the floor an inch deep.

The others offer no clue to their past function. Neglect has ravaged their solid 1950s design. One complex in the once-busy institution contains a disused pool and the remains of a gym, without the roof.

Kohitere Boy's Training Centre in Levin.

Kohitere Boy's Training Centre in Levin is one of the main welfare institutions that has been the subject of complaints about abuse in state care. Photo: RNZ / Aaron Smale

There is an eerie silence to the place, disturbed only by the long grass hissing in the wind. Walking down a fenceline, it appears someone recently tramped through. Maybe a visit, for old times' sake.

Separated from the main buildings by 100-odd metres and obscured by trees is a dirty, cream-coloured square concrete block. It has a low roof and a wing that juts out one side. On closer inspection it is hard to miss its purpose.

It was once a prison for boys.

Kohitere Boy's Training Centre in Levin.

The remains of a cell in a segregation unit at Kohitere. Photo: RNZ / Aaron Smale

On one side are three narrow, vertical slits - windows that became cavities in a solid wall. Peering in, there is a bench the shape of a bed. It occupies almost half the width of the room and nearly the entire length. There is no evidence of plumbing. Smashed glass, of the opaque reinforced kind, litters the floor, along with moss and detritus.

The door has a small square window, with the jagged remains of a piece of glass. Slats top and bottom look to have been slid open by staff so they could peer in at the wards. There are half a dozen of these cells around a square interior.

The building goes by various names to those who were there when it was operational. One title was the segregation unit. The building holds the most bitter memories for those who were residents at Kohitere Boys Training Centre.

One is Albie Epere. His recollection of why he ended up there is hazy. He was 13 at the time.

"All I can remember is that my older brother, Raymond, was in the [Lookout Point Boys Home] at the time. He'd run away and showed up at home. One of the staff members came over and got him. They actually gave him a hiding at the same time. When I seen it, I just wanted to be with him. I don't know why. It might have been the effect of watching somebody else beating him up.

"Home wasn't bad. My mum and my dad worked. I think they looked after us reasonably well. For me I just wanted to be with my brother. That's how I ended up being in the boys homes, I just kept running away so I could.

"Going through the boys' homes and that, we were accustomed to violence. It was either perpetrated on us, or we perpetrated it on someone else.

"I took a lot of bashings in there from staff. We used to run away all the time and they'd put us in the secure block, but before they put us in the secure block they used to bash us. It became normal for us. So we used to run away more. In the end we ended up in Levin, in Kohitere. I think I spent 10 months there."

"Everyone that went in there got stomped. What I mean by that is they had a welcoming committee. They'd just chuck a blanket over you so you don't see who it is, you just get bashed up. So these are the things we learnt along the way. Once it was perpetrated on us, then we started doing it. We think it's the normal thing to do.

"There was one time I ended up in the secure block, I was up there for two or three weeks. I was up there for kicking one of the other trainees. We got into a bit of an argument and I got up and kicked him in the head. I got sent up there for three weeks. It wasn't a nice experience."

"We used to run away all the time and they'd put us in the secure block, but before they put us in the secure block they used to bash us." - Albie Epere

His account squares with others - not just other gang members who went through a similar experience at institutions like Kohitere, Epuni and Owairaka - but with those who came into contact with them as outsiders.

Kim Workman started working as a police cadet in 1958 and was on the beat for the best part of the following 20 years. He was Youth Aid Officer from 1968 to 1975, first as a constable then as a sergeant. In this role he visited Kohitere several days each month.

Kohitere Boys' Home in Levin

The segregation unit - the prison building - at Kohitere Boys Training Centre. Photo: Supplied

"They'd lock them up in the isolation cells in an octagonal building with eight cells. The kids would be put in those isolation cells for anything up to three months. Some of them had mental health issues anyway and it was enough to send them around the twist. It was just a horrible environment."

What was obvious to Workman was that the vast majority of the residents were Māori. He says the rapid urbanisation of Māori around this period meant they were targeted simply for being different. He recalls being lined up with his colleagues as a young cop and told they weren't meeting their quota of arrests and they needed to up their numbers. He says it was almost inevitable Māori ended up targeted.

"The kids would be put in those isolation cells for anything up to three months." - Former police officer Kim Workman

"The police were very racist, mainly through ignorance. What happened when I went out onto the street in 1958 - the gang thing didn't emerge until the 1970s - was there were these young Māori men and women who were going to the trades hall in Wellington to dances.

"Their behaviour was so different from Pākeha. They were boisterous, they'd sing and play their guitars walking along the street. They'd joke with one another and sometimes they'd be overly friendly towards the police. At that time there was a significant increase in police numbers per head of population. In Wellington, where I was an officer, it was not uncommon on a Saturday night to have 30 police officers out on patrol in a city that only had three night clubs and a couple of coffee bars. There was over-policing so you can imagine what happened."

Kohitere Boy's Training Centre in Levin.

A broken cell window at Kohitere. Photo: RNZ / Aaron Smale

"You'd have two or three cops in a car and they had radio connection with their station. And they'd say, 'there's a group of Māoris and they're singing and one of them has a bottle of beer'. They'd descend on these guys and harass the shit out of them until somebody used an obscene word or stand up to them and then they'd arrest them."

He says in the case of children, their parents were often isolated because of the "pepper-potting" policy of the government that scattered Māori among Pākeha neighbourhoods to try and make them assimilate. It meant that whanau networks were broken up. Children were often left to their own devices while their parents worked long hours to make ends meet.

"Once you get separated from everything, you start looking for something. Something to connect to, something to belong to." - Albie Epere

This made them vulnerable to authorities targeting them for minor infractions. Because government departments did not have good networks in Māori communities, Māori children would often go straight to a welfare home, where a Pākeha child picked up by welfare was more likely to be put in foster care.

After leaving the police he eventually ended up working for Department of Justice and was appointed operational head of Penal Institutions in 1989. He said those coming out of welfare homes hit adulthood and turned up in prisons and gangs. Those who came through the welfare system formed the nucleus of Māori gangs, even though they were from disparate backgrounds and did not have much else in common.

Kohitere Boy's Training Centre in Levin.

Albie Epere says the violence he learned in Kohitere and the dislocation from his family meant he gravitated to Black Power at an early age. He has spent about 25 years in jail. Photo: RNZ / Aaron Smale

Epere says the violence he learned in Kohitere and the dislocation of being removed from his family meant he gravitated towards Black Power at an early age. His criminal history started young.

"Once you get separated from everything, you start looking for something. Something to connect to, something to belong to. I think that's how this all came about, just personally for myself. Because of the violence, and the gangs were violent at that time, the drugs, I went all through that.

"It only got worse after Kohitere. After Kohitere they had CT, Correctional Training. That was my next step. Right through the 80s, the 90s, there wasn't a year that I wasn't in prison. From about '83 to about 2000, there wasn't a year. I've only just stopped going to prison since 2008. I've probably done 25 years all up in jail, in the jail system.

"I must have racked up more than 20 assaults by the time I was about 16. They range up to about 30 assaults that I got on my rap sheet. When I was a lot younger there were drinking ones too. Getting caught in the pubs. As I got older the violence got more serious. They weren't just assault they were GBHs (grievous bodily harm), things like that. The violence just got worser."

Epere says violence was so normalised at Kohitere that he could never understand the reaction of those who were not exposed to it.

"After I got out of those places you could sit there and watch somebody get a hiding and you would think nothing about it. But anybody else that would be looking at it, that had never seen violence in their life or hadn't had it in their life, they'd freak out. I'd be sitting there thinking, 'what's the f**king problem, he's only getting a hiding'. These were the things we learnt when we were younger, how to take a hiding and how to give a hiding. I could probably say that most gang members now either went through those places and are still gang members now or were gang members.

"There's an old saying, lock a dog in a cage and let him out after a while and see what he does. There's only one thing he's going to do, he's going to rip everything apart because you kept him in a cage and treated him like an animal. That's what they did with us. Even though we were in a boys' home and not in a cage, mentally we're in a cage. We're in their cage. We call that the system cage, it's all about the system, the system that runs everything."

Government responsibility?

Epere says those in charge of the system need to take responsibility and acknowledge the damage that was done and the effect it continues to have on people's lives.

"I would like them to take responsibility for their actions. I would like to ask politicians to take responsibility because we're a by-product of their system. That's what they need to take responsibility for, is their actions in the whole thing. We took responsibility for our actions when we used to beat people up we went to jail for it. That's what I'd like to say to them. Where's your responsibility in it? Or is it sweep it under the carpet like everything else."

"I'll never leave what they call the gang. For me it's my iwi, it's my hapu." - Albie Epere

He says politicians are quick to get on a media soapbox and condemn gangs, but he regards the Black Power as his family and has no intention of leaving. He says he does not need to take his patch off to change his behaviour.

"It was being a part of something. You've already been separated from your family. I wanted to be separated from them just to be with my brother, but in the end I actually separated from my parents. After I followed my oldest brother the rest followed me and went and did exactly the same thing. We all went to jail, we all went through the same processes. There's a lot of people out there, from our generation, from about 45 upwards, that have gone through the same thing. People wonder why we're like this."

"I'll never leave what they call the gang. For me it's my iwi, it's my hapu. I say that because where was my iwi and my hapu when I was growing up?"

none

The derelict remains of Kohitere. Photo: RNZ - Aaron Smale

Epere is determined to not pass on the legacy of Kohitere to his children.

"For me now it's about undoing what I learnt. That's a personal thing for myself to make me a better person. I'm 50 now, I've got a partner, I've had seven kids, I've got 18 grandchildren. It's not about me now, it's about what I leave behind. If I carry on with all the old stuff I used to do then I'm not going to leave them much. I'm at the stage where I'm trying to leave them something better than what I had, I don't want them going down the path I had. Because it only leads to violence and destruction."

 

This article was originally published by RNZ.

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