The brutal activities of the outfit were forced to public attention by prisoners, especially after the death of a fellow inmate at the hands of the squad. Prison officials have since moved to close down the squad. Working people and youth should join in condemning the goon squad’s actions, and welcome the resistance demonstrated by workers who are behind prison walls as reinforcing the fight to overthrow the brutal system of capitalist exploitation and oppression.
The goon squad, which was set up in 1999, was a specially trained Emergency Response Unit (ERU) made up of prison officers. With knowledge of prison authorities, the thugs conducted nighttime sweeps through the complex of three prisons to intimidate prisoners. At times they included off-duty police officers, military police, other military personnel, and officers of the Department of Customs. The ERU conducted its sweeps in all three prisons, including the women’s unit.
Many of the details of the squad’s activities came to light in May this year through the Employment Court. Nigel French, a former member of the goon squad, filed suit in the court against the Corrections Department. French is demanding compensation from the department, saying he suffers clinical depression and "post-traumatic stress disorder." French says his condition began after he and four other guards overpowered prisoner David Haimona in 1999.
According to French, Haimona had barricaded himself in his cell and was attempting to set it alight. As the goon squad forced an entry, French claimed, Haimona tried to strangle him. The New Zealand Herald reported that Haimona "died of an apparent heart attack in November 1999 as a result of being overpowered by five guards and put in a restraint hold." The coroner has yet to report his findings.
The prisoners’ outraged response to Haimona’s death was described by Timothy Gladstone, a former prison officer at the court hearing. He said that French was branded a "murderer" and that the reaction from prisoners got so bad that Gladstone refused, on "safety grounds," to go into the east and central wings with French to round up inmates for drug testing. Prisoners would join in shouting out "murderer" each time French appeared.
During their reign of terror, ERU thugs would conduct sweeps to test "inmate compliance." Dressed in full riot gear, they would advance through the high security east wing of the main prison, deliberately waking prisoners by stomping their feet in unison, and repeatedly rattling cell doors to try to provoke a reaction.
The outfit used riot shields to force prisoners onto their bunks. They would also shine a red laser light from a nearby rooftop into prison cells to make prisoners think police armed offenders’ squad (AOS) rifles were trained on them. If a prisoner reacted to the cumulative psychological onslaught, the goon squad would then burst into their cell, using a hydraulic door opener if needed.
Prisoners lodged legal protests with the Ombudsman’s Office, a state agency charged with fielding complaints against government departments. An inquiry from the Howard League for Penal Reform was met by an assurance from the prison warden about the goon squad’s "high professionalism."
As the revelations continued the position of the goon squad became less and less tenable. It was disbanded by prison officials in June 2000. An in-house inquiry recommended that the ERU head, deputy, and second deputy all be dismissed. All three continue to be employed by the Corrections Department, however.
The head thug, Anthony Bird, had spent 10 years in the police, including the AOS. Bird told the Press in a May 14 interview that Haimona’s death was "a fact of life in the prison, especially in the line of work the ERU was trained for." Paparua prison site manager Rushton admitted in the Employment Court that he was kept fully briefed on goon squad actions.
Matthew Robson, the Labour-led government Minister of Corrections, has refused to respond to the revelations and the Employment Court judge has reserved his decision.
Father James Consedine, a prison chaplain, expressed disbelief that goon squad practices could be tolerated and practiced in "our state-run prisons." Calls for an inquiry came from the Howard League for Penal Reform, the rightist-leaning New Zealand First party, and the Christchurch Press.
The paper editorialized May 25, "Had this taken place in an African dictatorship, not an eye would blink. But New Zealand was the setting--a nation that has always put a priority on the State being able to deploy only disciplined and sanctioned force. The Goon Squad violated those traditions."
‘Disciplined and sanctioned force’
But prisons, goon squads, and the everyday brutalities against workers behind bars are very much part of the "disciplined and sanctioned force" that the capitalist state metes out--on a daily basis and in a variety of ways--to working people.
These are not "our" prisons: they are the prisons of the capitalist ruling class and the governments that serve them. They are a necessary part of the workings of a system in which a tiny wealthy minority defends its prerogatives, power, and interests against the great majority. They are part of the violence of an imperialist ruling class, that extends the brutality it uses at home to workers and farmers worldwide.
And outfits like the goons are not just the result of a few "bad apples" or misguided policies. Prison guards, like police officers, are agents of the system and act as enforcers against working people, usually in the expectation that they are "above the law."
The growing police and prison guard violence today point to the reality of what capitalism has to offer working people. The number of working people behind bars in New Zealand has increased 33 percent since 1991. While New Zealand has no official death penalty, seven prisoners in the Paparua prison complex died in 2001 and three so far in 2002. And the fact that more than 50 percent of the prison population is Maori points to the racism and national oppression that permeates every institution of capitalist society in New Zealand.
Part of the rulers’ ideological offensive is to break workers’ confidence and sense of self-worth, especially inside prison walls, while numbing solidarity by labeling sections of the working class as "criminal." The rulers want to divide workers by convincing us that those convicted of crimes are guilty now and guilty forever. Working people and youth must join with those fighting inside prison and welcome them to the ranks of the broader struggle against this system of exploitation and oppression.
Recognizing how the capitalist system works points to the need to advance the fight to wrest political power out of the hands of the ruling rich and their goon squads and establish a workers and farmers government that can begin building society on a new basis. This includes overturning the bourgeois system of justice for the capitalist rulers--a system of injustice for the toiling majority.
Working people can join with the prisoners at Paparua protesting the murder of David Haimona, and insisting on their right to be free from arbitrary search and seizure. All those involved in the episode that ended David Haimona’s life should be charged, put on trial, and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
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