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Lock them up and throw away the key!

Sunday 23 September 2018 | Written by Thomas Tarurongo Wynne | Published in Opinion


Lock them up and throw away the key!
Facing time behind bars, a prisoner at Arorangi jail contemplates his future. PHOTO: CINews file. 18092125

He kissed her, tears rolling down his eyes and he hugged his children, knowing their time together was about to come to an end.

His life was about to change forever as he faced time in Arorangi Prison for an act that had been out of character, fulled by alcohol and driven by one bad choice after another.

I consoled her and grabbed the baby, helping her as she waved goodbye to her partner and faced the reality of having to fend for herself as he did his time for a crime steeped in bad decisions.

It’s easy for us in our frustration with crime on the island to say, “Throw them in jail and throw away the key,” as our prison now houses just over 40 prisoners. But when you see the end of those decisions, it is hard not to feel some compassion for their plight.

It's easy for us to take to Facebook as I have done and vent our frustration at crime or potential crime. And yes, I had to go and see the young man I had vilified on Facebook and apologise, not for being angry, but because of the way I did it. I was guilty of publically hanging him with words and looking back at the time, I knew it was wrong.

The temptation is so real when we get angry and frustrated, but in our anger we do dehumanize these members of our communities and push them further away from the help they desperately need, even if they don’t realise they need it themselves.

The young man I hung out to dry I see every other day as he is working and trying to put his life on track. Every time I see him I am reminded of the need for grace and mercy and to leave the judgment to powers much higher than myself.

Prisons don’t work. Well, for the most part, they don’t work, because to be fair I have seen a few former prisoners change their lives and take the time to work hard at erasing the negative tools that got them there in the first place. But they are the few. So many more will merely have those dark parts of their lives incubated till they come out and then they go back to the same situations, same friends and decisions that got them there in the first place.

I remember talking to a young man about to be released for a hideous crime. A crime that deserved time away from society so as he could hopefully get the help he needed to change himself from the inside out.

“How can I live outside these walls?” he asked me. “I will always be seen as the guy that did this crime.”

I looked at him, and saw his hopelessness and said to him, “If you let this define you and the rest of your life, then yes, you will always be categorised by this crime.

“Or,” I said, “you can close the chapter to this part of your life, not let it define you and create new chapters, new stories and though you can never erase what happened, you can ensure that this chapter is never repeated again.”

Surely that, if anything, can be the role of prison if we are to look at it as a place for rehabilitation and not just a place of incarceration and of punishment.

Freedom is something we all take for granted - until, of course, that freedom is taken from us. Prison is no hotel, and neither is it a holiday camp as some claim, because their freedom to go, to be with those they choose, to wake up, to sleep and who they can be with is taken away from them.

Prisoners with families pay a huge price and as I witnessed the heartache this young man and his partner faced with his incarceration, it was clear to me the price to pay is a high one.

If we want to lock people up, then can I ask that the time they spend in jail is spent doing more then just toiling in the taro patches and work gangs? Can I ask that time and resources are spent on rehabilitation, on literacy and numeracy, on building them from the inside out? Because the investment we make there may well ensure we are not investing in locking them up again, and again and again.

Men, we have some work to do, because too many of our sons, our nephews, or uncles and fathers are sitting in jail while their families wait patiently outside. I am seeing five men at the moment for counseling and my Sundays are full with their constant visits. But what it has shown me is that we need to come together and build each other and build those who fall through the cracks.

I would like to start a men's support group again here in Rarotonga so when the courts send men to counseling we have Cook Islands Maori men who can respond to that need. And if men need support -be it counseling or just some tools to help them be better men, better fathers, better partners and husbands, then we can be here to help.

As women have worked together to meet their needs in our community, men we need to do the same. As Solomon wisely said, if we start children off on the way they should go, even when they are old they won't turn from it.

Men, if you reading this and you think you can help, drop me a line. Let’s be the answer and ourselves provide the mana and tools ourselves, that our brothers, fathers, uncles, nephews and families desperately need.

-Thomas Wynne