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Former inmate Paul Wood's insights on improving NZ's criminal-justice system

Paul Wood: “I have been given the opportunity for redemption.” Photo/Simon Woolf/Supplied

As the Government spends millions reforming the criminal-justice system, Paul Wood says crime would be reduced if we taught our children emotional literacy.

Paul Wood is a rare success story from the troubled and failing New Zealand criminal-justice system. Convicted of murder at 18, Wood left jail 11 years later with two university degrees gained during his incarceration, and the beginnings of his PhD in psychology.

Wood’s early childhood was not exceptional. He was one of four boys, growing up near Wellington with parents Brian and Mary Wood. In his recently released book, How to Escape from Prison, he describes his upbringing as “a Boy’s Own idyll”. But adolescent roughhousing rapidly escalated to more serious violence, crime and drugs. A chance to change his path came in 1993 when, aged 16, Wood moved to Chile with family friends. But his more settled life came to an abrupt end a year later, when his mother, who had been in remission after breast-cancer treatment, became ill again and he returned to Wellington.

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On New Year’s Eve 1995, in a drug-addled frenzy compounded by the loss of his mother two days earlier, Wood battered his drug dealer to death. He was later convicted of murder.

Wood makes no excuses for the crime that led to a mandatory life sentence. He says not only did he deserve the sentence, but also he’s grateful for the chance it gave him to gain an education and transform his antisocial and violent behaviour. On release from prison in 2006, he completed his doctorate – Dr Paul Wood is now a motivational speaker and consultant specialising in personal development.

He’s also happily married. He and his wife, Mary-Ann, have two preschoolers, Braxton, four, and Gordon, two. Publication of Wood’s book coincides with the deliberations of the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group, chaired by former National Party minister Chester Borrows. An interim report was recently released and a final report is due in August. Wood already knows what changes he would make to reduce offending and the number of people going to jail.

Paul Wood’s 1996 mugshot and prison identification. Photo/Supplied

What would you do to reduce crime and prison populations?

If I had the power, and the Jacinda magic wand, I would introduce emotional literacy as an across-the-board topic within the curriculum at primary schools. That would be the ultimate ambulance at the top of the cliff, and it would begin to address our rates of suicide, violent crime, criminal offending and drug abuse that occur later in life.

What would you do for those already in the criminal-justice system?

I’d only jail the people who need to be there for the protection of society. Don’t put people in prison on remand unless they pose a clear and present threat. Don’t put them in for traffic offences, or property offences, or non-violent drug-related offences. Use community-based options, such as home detention, until their next court appearance, or put them on a curfew where they have to be at home between certain hours, but are still able to work. The average length of time people spend on remand is growing; it is now 70 days. That is long enough to lose your job, lose your flat, lose all of the ingredients that give you any kind of life stability. And a large proportion of people who are placed on remand aren’t sentenced to a term of imprisonment.

Wood, centre, in 1981, with brothers Jon, left, and Andrew and father Brian. Photo/Supplied

On the subject of emotional literacy, how might your life have been different if you’d had the chance you are now suggesting for all schoolchildren?

When my father came to tell me Mum had died, I actually wanted to tell him about the dire straits that I was in [with drugs], but I didn’t know how. That could have been a massive turning point right then because, even though my dad isn’t an expert in this area, I know he would have done whatever he could to get me some help. But I just didn’t have the ability to have a conversation like that.

Did losing your mother tip you over emotionally, leading to the fatal attack?

That was definitely an ingredient, but certainly not an excuse. I was someone who had already used violence to solve problems. I was using drugs and exposing myself to the types of high-risk situations that led to the offending, or contributed to it. Psychologically, it’s always easier to feel you’re a victim of your circumstances and that you are not to blame, but taking full ownership and accepting accountability are the only way to live an empowered life.

You describe prison, in the early years, as a place of violence, drug use and living on your nerves, and unless you adapt to a new prison code of behaviour, you will find it much tougher than most. Does that sum it up?

That’s just how people survive; they adapt. And a reason there are such high suicide rates in jail is because of those who can’t disconnect, who can’t dial down their empathy, who can’t get more accustomed to the experience of violence. It’s a very traumatic environment to be in for any length of time.

His wedding to Mary-Ann Moller in 2016. Photo/Anna Munro/Supplied

In prison, you met people who were positive influences, such as convicted double-murderer John Barlow [who was sentenced to life for the murders of Gene and Eugene Thomas in Wellington in 1994].

Oh, he was such a positive, socialising, civilising influence. John would play devil’s advocate and challenge some of my more distorted and unhelpful antisocial thinking. Think of Pygmalion, the play – he even gave me advice on pronouncing my “th”; I’d say “fwee” o’clock. That’s not problematic in itself, but it pigeonholes you in terms of education, which might just be a barrier to getting on in the world. John was also very strong on discouraging the use of profanity, which was not uncommon within the prison environment, but may be problematic for some of the people you interact with outside it. There was that nuanced stuff, but also bigger stuff such as challenging my acceptance of violence as a normal means of settling a score. John really believed that he had a duty to try to help people who hadn’t had as fortunate a life as he had. And it’s something that I really take on board now in terms of how I operate. 

What’s your contribution to the good of inmates?

I regularly go back and speak in prisons and I do that for free. The words I use are nowhere near as powerful as just being a living example of someone who has got out of jail, whose background is known, but who’s still been able to be an accepted member of society. By going into the prisons, by doing interviews like this, by publishing my book, by talking about my background in the way I do, I show it is possible.

With wife Mary-Ann and sons Gordon and Braxton. Photo/Anna Munro/Supplied

Was it painful writing this book and going back over your crime, and the consequences?

Yes, there were real challenges because, in many respects, there are some parts where it would be easier to be less honest. For example, describing the crime. How do you do that in a way that wouldn’t be gratuitous, but also wouldn’t be so self-serving and oblique that you wouldn’t get a picture of the reality of what I did, and my culpability.

My wife knows and loves me, based on who I am now, but it was very confronting for her to have to read about this person who she just can’t relate to.

How do you explain this to your boys? Someone at school, sometime, is likely to say, “Your dad’s a murderer.”

This is one of the biggest challenges – I have a hollow in my stomach at the thought. Our four-and-a-half-year-old already knows I’ve been in prison. He came home from kindy one day and was talking to my wife about “the baddies” having been put in jail and that baddies go to jail – this is the kind of game that kids play. I wasn’t home that day, but my wife is a very wise parent and was able to introduce into the conversation the idea that not everyone who goes to jail is a baddie – sometimes good people go to jail because they’re acting like a baddie and they don’t know that they’re really good.

Receiving his doctorate from Massey University chancellor Russell Ballard. Photo/Simon Woolf/Supplied

Your academic studies opened you up to a world of reading. What books have been influential or especially enjoyable?

What education did was lead me out of the darkness of my own ignorance and make me more aware of the world that is out there. Books that framed my thinking about the reality of the human experience were incredibly valuable, even something like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Probably my favourite author is Haruki Murakami. I also developed a real love of classical literature and would give my father – my long-suffering ultimate-source-of-support father – lists of books to borrow from the library for me. I love Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol – these writers gave me so much insight into the human experience. From prince to pauper, all of us are going to have struggles.

As a lifer, you still have the threat of being recalled to prison if you put a foot wrong.

Yes, and I don’t even need to put a foot wrong; it can be if I am associated with someone who has put a foot wrong. If there’s any concern that I might pose a risk to the community, I can be put straight back in jail. That is legitimate, and fair enough. I’ve been paroled, but life means life in New Zealand. They don’t ever have to release me, but I have been given the opportunity for redemption and re-entry into society, to try to make up for the harm I have done. I consider myself very fortunate to live in this country.

This article was first published in the July 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.