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Sir Kim Workman on his fight for criminal justice reform

Sir Kim Workman. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Listener

By any objective measure, our justice and prison systems are failing. But tireless campaigner Sir Kim Workman says ideas for reform are gaining traction.

He was just 15, a 1950s bodgie staggering across the road in full view of the local police officer after a night drinking and dancing in a Masterton pub.

“But [the policeman] never accosted me,” recalls justice reform campaigner, ex-cop, former head of prisons and jazz musician Sir Kim Workman. “His thinking was, ‘This is not a bad kid, he comes from a good home, we don’t need to put him through the system – I’ll talk to his dad and see what we can do’.”

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It was old-school small-town policing, working to keep potential young offenders on an honest path. Now, 63 years on, Workman is still fighting for a justice system that keeps young people out of prison, treats those in prison humanely and reduces the chances they will reoffend on release.

Workman, who was knighted in the New Year Honours, acknowledges that about one in 20 of the prison population – “the psychopaths, the serial offenders, the mentally disordered” – may be beyond our reach. But, he observes in his memoir, Journey Towards Justice, published in November, the rest do want loving relationships with their partners and children, to respect and be respected, to find a way of saying sorry to those they’ve harmed.

Workman’s uncle and aunt, Jim and Joyce, left, and parents Peggy and George, with older sisters Diane and Janice in the late 1930s. Photo/Supplied

Even in gangs, he says, it is not difficult to find people who want to lead prosocial lives. “And when they are shakers and movers within their group, you need to resource them and empower them to bring about those changes.”

It seems a simple but frustratingly inaccessible goal. For more than half a century, Workman (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa/Rangitāne), 78, has seen the public mood swing back and forth between demand for criminal justice reform and hunger for stiffer penalties. Crime rates are decreasing, but we still have one of the highest prison population rates in the OECD; young people are still joining gangs; Māori still make up 15% of the population and around half of the prison muster (in 2014, a visiting United Nations delegation warned the high number of Māori in prison was a breach of international law); and about 45% of prisoners are still reconvicted within 12 months of release.

Interviewed in his home, a small yellow bach at Waikawa Beach on the Kāpiti Coast north of Wellington, Workman quotes a gang member he met in 2012: “I live in a ditch and every now and again I poke my head out of the ditch and look around and I say to myself, is it safe out there? Then I climb back into the ditch.”

His first bike, “The Green Terror”, around 1950. Photo/Supplied

Rote justice

Workman was 17 when his father dropped him off at the Police Training School at Trentham in his 1938 Bedford pickup. Eighteen months later, he was an enthusiastic new cop on the beat, waging an “unrelenting war on crime” as measured in arrest rates and the number of successful convictions. Six o’clock pub closing made for easy pickings and young Māori – more boisterous, more likely to cover for a mate, less likely to have legal counsel – were prime candidates. But this had nothing to do with deterrence, nothing to do with addressing the high level of institutional racism.

The youth institutions of the era were singularly unsuccessful in reducing youth crime, often serving as an intermediary step, writes Workman, on the path to borstal, then adult prison. He recalls the “hellhole” that was the Kohitere Boys’ Training Centre near Levin. He visited the now-closed facility as a youth aid officer; he would leave feeling angry that the state could allow such inhumane conditions – conditions almost guaranteed, he writes, “to turn vulnerable children and youth into scarred, distrusting and sometimes dangerous adults”.

In October 1976, the infamous dawn raids, a sustained crackdown on illegal overstayers, mainly from the Pacific Islands, peaked in intensity, “parading institutional racism for all to see”. It was the last straw; he wanted out.

He worked as an investigating officer in the Office of the Ombudsman and, in 1989, became operational head of prisons. It was a tough time. Prisons were overcrowded, gang violence was on the rise, escapes were frequent (about 80 a year), contraband was easy to get in and out.

Te Ara Hou, also known as the Roper Report, had revealed a prison system struggling to rehabilitate or deter offenders.

Constable Workman in 1960. Photo/Supplied

Workman set about introducing reforms but his initiatives came to a dramatic halt in 1993 when an officer at Mangaroa Prison near Hastings was stabbed. The perpetrator was moved to another jail but not the three witnesses. Workman’s misgivings proved right. The witnesses were found badly beaten, one with a suspected fractured skull, and 12 officers were fired.

Workman, already suffering from the depression that afflicted his father, was out in the cold. In Parliament, MP Michael Laws described him as the “guilty person”; Geoff Braybrooke said he was not fit to run a justice system. The only support came from a Mongrel Mob leader, appreciative of the work Workman had done to help reduce violence in jail. “That had a considerable impact on me,” he says. “It was the first supportive word I had received, and it meant a great deal.”

He left the public service, but his commitment to a more effective and humane justice system never wavered. In Canada, the Netherlands and Finland he saw penal systems focused on offenders’ potential for change and their return to society. Today, Finland’s incarceration rate is 57 per 100,000 people – ours is 219.

In 1996, as a recent convert to Christianity, he was appointed director of the Christian-based Prison Fellowship New Zealand. Under his watch, the fellowship ushered in new programmes of restorative justice and a trial faith-based prison unit, the first in the Commonwealth, delivering a programme of support that continued after the prisoner was released. It proved successful, not through religious conversions but through the social attachments formed within the church. “Those with strong social attachments,” he says, “are less likely to commit crime.”

With wife Carolyn on their wedding day in 1982. Photo/Supplied

Get-tough rhetoric

Through the 1990s, the understanding was growing that adverse early-life experiences were contributing to our high prison numbers. (A report last year by then Chief Science Adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, found that 77% of people in prison had been victims of family or sexual violence.)

Despite this, justice debates focused increasingly on the needs of victims over offenders, even though 50% of victims, says Workman, come from the same backgrounds as criminal offenders. “[Victims and offenders] are often in the same families. Often they are the same people.”

Yet the “get tough on crime” rhetoric continued to grow. Stiffer rules around surveillance, bail, parole and sentencing were introduced. In 2009, the National Government implemented a three-month trial of a residential-training programme, Fresh Start, for 14- to 16-year-olds. It consisted of military-type activity, mentoring and drug and alcohol treatment. But by 2011, only two of 17 youths had not reoffended and four were in prison: the programme dropped from view.

Workman remains critical of the practice of remanding young people in custody. “The first day they go into remand they get a bash, and the second day they get all their stuff taken from them, and the third day they are invited to join a gang. The gang numbers are going up and up and it is all because of this policy of locking kids up in remand.”

Steps towards reform were repeatedly cut short by headline-hitting crimes. In 2006, 17-year-old remand prisoner Liam Ashley was fatally attacked in a Chubb prison van by criminal George Baker. Five months later, Graeme Burton, recently released on life parole, murdered quad biker Karl Kuchenbecker in the Wainuiomata hills.

“Nobody was prepared to move,” Workman says. “The parole board for the last seven or eight years has been paralysed by fear around letting someone go and then them doing one thing, instead of fronting up and saying, ‘Look, we release so many people a year and there will always be somebody who blows it.’”

An opinion piece in the Herald in 2007 by David Garrett, legal adviser to the Sensible Sentencing Trust (who would be elected to Parliament on the Act list the next year), described an idyllic prison life free of domestic and financial responsibilities. Workman was characteristically blunt in his response.

“Once or twice a month,” he wrote, “I receive a phone call from middle-class professionals whose sons have been sent to prison … What picture should I portray? Prison as paradise? Or reality? That if their sons are well formed and half-way good looking, they are likely to be spreadeagled in the showers? That if they are unacquainted with drugs, that gap in their education is about to be taken care of? That violence is king – a pecking order exists and their sons are at the bottom of the rung? That every moral value instilled in their children is modified, in many cases permanently? That their sons may never reoffend, but their capacity to love, nurture and trust will be seriously impaired?”

With sons Wiremu and Matiu in 1995. Photo/Supplied

Sighs and vitriol

Over the years, Workman’s views have been met with sighs, rolling eyes or outright vitriol. A senior departmental official referred to him as a “born-again Māori”. As he writes, that was both deeply offensive and racist, “a denial of my whakapapa, my childhood, my adolescence and 25 years of involvement with my hapū and iwi in south Wairarapa”. Workman’s frequent adversary, Garth McVicar, founder of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, described him as a “career public servant with a first-class carriage on the gravy train”.

Despite the toll on his health and reputation, Workman never considered giving up.

“It occurred to me that if I wanted to continue doing this I would fail constantly – and that was okay. I was always taken with what [US President John F] Kennedy said – ‘A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on’ – and I started thinking that is my contribution, to put those ideas out there. Secondly, I lost any idea I might become somebody important. I was never going to be a chief executive of a government department. I had burnt those bridges.”

Now, Workman sees some of his ideas gaining traction. There is more acceptance of restorative justice, he says, more buy-in to the idea of iwi and Māori involvement in the justice system.

The youth movement JustSpeak, co-founded by Workman in 2011, is making itself heard on criminal-justice issues. The community campaigning organisation ActionStation and Otago University are looking at Māori perspectives on justice. The trial Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts – introduced by National and aimed at repeat offenders who would otherwise be imprisoned – are ongoing, “but I’m impatient with the Ministry of Justice for not moving ahead; they are expensive to run but not as expensive as putting somebody in prison”.

Labour has pledged to cut the jail population by 30% over 15 years and has reversed plans for a so-called “mega-prison” at Waikeria. The Corrections Department has created a new bail support service to cut the amount of time inmates spend on remand and is ensuring that prisoners have completed rehabilitation programmes before their first parole hearing, so as to increase their chances of release. Since April, New Zealand’s prison population has dropped by 8%.

But as Workman says, there are further battles ahead. Justice Minister Andrew Little has dropped plans to repeal the “three strikes” legislation, citing lack of support from New Zealand First. And long-running attempts to overturn a total ban on prisoner voting imposed by a 2010 amendment to the Electoral Act have failed to find favour in the courts. The appellants are now planning to take their plea to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

As Workman says, for many prisoners the opportunity to exercise that right may mean little, since they may never have voted anyway. But its importance lies in preparing those in prison for a life beyond bars that is safe, social and “normal”.

“Most of those guys in prison have never experienced that normality, but we have to introduce into their lives different ways of doing things that challenge the stuff they have been brought up with. We have to insist they are treated decently and humanely.”

JOURNEY TOWARDS JUSTICE, by Kim Workman (Bridget Williams Books, $50).

This article was first published in the January 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.