Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis says the protesting Waikeria Prison inmates are responsible for “reckless criminal acts” after the 16 men surrendered today, in his first comments since the protest began.
The men were escorted out at midday by Rawiri Waititi, the MP for Waiariki and co-leader of the Māori Party, after destroying the ‘top jail’ facility at the prison in their six-day standoff.
“As previously expressed, I have had constant contact with the whānau involved in this protest and they were adamant that they would only surrender with me present to ensure that no injury occurred to any officers or protestors," Waititi says.
Davis has refused to comment until the standoff was resolved.
In his first public comments today, released in a written press statement, Davis says the majority of those involved in the protest were members of the Mongols and Comancheros gangs, with five of them deportees from Australia.
Three were subject to returning offender orders because of their criminal convictions.
“The arson, violence and destruction carried out by these men were reckless criminal acts that put themselves, other prisoners, Corrections staff and emergency services in danger,” Davis says.
“No one should glorify the actions of these prisoners. They damaged property worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and they put their own lives and the health and safety of staff and other prisoners at risk.
“There is never an excuse for resorting to violence and destruction."
Potential charges for the destruction will be up to police, Davis says.
In a joint statement, ActionStation, People Against Prisons Aotearoa and JustSpeak say charges shouldn't be laid and Corrections and police should "review this situation in the context of ongoing breaches of human rights at Waikeria".
"These conditions are well documented, and Corrections has an obligation to urgently address these to ensure the safety and wellbeing for the men held in Waikeria, as well as the staff working at this facility," the advocacy groups say.
"We urge compassion towards the men who have been protesting breaches of their legal and human rights.
"Further breaches of human and legal rights of prisoners will only lead to future confrontations until the fundamental issues are resolved."
The Corrections Minister says he had chosen not to bow to the demands of the inmates or make public comment.
The men said they were protesting inhumane living conditions at the prison; complaints that were backed up by a recent surprise Ombudsman visit last year.
“These men wanted political attention, and unfortunately those who waded into the issue in order to generate headlines only helped to embolden them, extend the duration of the event, and increase the risk to safety,” he said.
“I made the decision not to bow to the demands of these men nor make public comment that would have simply opened up political negotiation with them and achieved nothing to bring the event to a safe resolution.”
Corrections would "undertake a comprehensive review into how this situation was able to evolve and escalate to the extent it did and report their findings back to me", Davis said.
“They will also assess the damage done to the prison, but no one is expected to return to the ‘top jail’ facility," he said.
Waititi, the Māori Party co-leader, said in a press release today that he had arrived at the prison at 9.30am this morning "at the request of the 16" remaining inmates.
Earlier attempts by National's corrections spokesperson Simeon Brown and Taranaki-King Country MP Barbara Kuriger to enter the prison were denied.
Waititi praised the inmates for "standing up to fight for their rights" and "making the right decision to surrender".
“They were ready to come down. Naturally, they were tired and hungry but still very determined to see change,” he says .
“They have achieved what they set out to do when they embarked on bringing attention to their maltreatment in prison."
“When injustice is normalised, defiance and protest is necessary. These men are the product of such injustices and through their protest they have changed the face Corrections forever.
“Whilst people that do crime must serve their time, they must also be treated in a just and humane way.”
Waititi says "even prison guards" had acknowledged the "state of the unit was unacceptable".
“These men are not animals, they are humans; they are brothers, fathers and sons and are deserving of better treatment.”
Davis says a world-leading new high-security prison with a first-of-its-kind mental health facility is currently being built at Waikeria Prison and will open in 2022.