The issue is political kryptonite.
Seventeen years ago, in the winter chill of the debating chamber, Matt Robson stood alone.
On June 28, the Alliance MP and then-Corrections Minister, who had just returned from Australia, told a journalist he was exploring ways to allow prisoners better access to their families. That was assumed to include conjugal visits and inmate mothers caring for their young children.
The move, politically-speaking, was misguided. The next day every opposition party let their dogs loose on Robson.
“Will he take into consideration the needs of prisoners who do not have girlfriends and if so, does he envisage putting on a bus service between K Rd and Paremoremo?” barked NZ First MP Ron Mark.
National leader Jenny Shipley called it “liberal claptrap” to suggest prisoners deserve a right to sex. In a stinging press release, she said prisons should not be "some sort of state-funded Playboy Mansion”.
Robson was also bitten for his maternal suggestion. “Criminal crèche and prison sex send the wrong signals to criminals. The message now is three square meals a day, no responsibility, free sex and the kids can stay too,” said the ACT Party’s Stephen Franks.
There were jokes about "stiffer penalties" and "harder sentences", and even Robson’s strongest allies, Prime Minister Helen Clark, Alliance leader Jim Anderton, and Labour's Justice Minister, Phil Goff, stood against him. Nothing to do with us, they muttered.
A report of the devastating takedown was written by Eugene Bingham in the NZ Herald. “For once, Matt Robson seemed to have gone limp … he looked like he could cry.”
“Mr Robson had committed a political misjudgment on a scale not seen before from a minister in this Government. He said he just wanted to look at any ideas which would reduce reoffending and thought he might be able to generate a sensible public debate about the issue.
“He was bang out of luck.”
PAR FOR THE COURSE
Fete Taito has had sex in prison.
Allowed a few minutes in a visitor room, the former King Cobra gang member and his partner did their best to stifle their panting, fearful of the guard pacing the corridor metres away.
Taito has spent more than 15 years of his life in prisons for crimes including aggravated robbery and drug-dealing. The Samoan ex-con last walked free a decade ago.
Now armed with a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Māori, the giant man with a similar degree of intellect and humour gives talks at universities and schools about his former life.
“Lots of guys have done it in the visitor rooms. I’ve seen it myself, I’ve done it myself. It was sort of par for the course for people who thought they could get away with it.”
Taito says the punishment for those caught was having to switch to “booth visits” for a few months, depending on what sexual act they were caught doing. He believes quickies in visitor rooms happen far less now as “there are cameras everywhere”.
New Zealand is one of few western countries to not allow conjugal visits.
In Canada, every prisoner bar the most dangerous are allowed private family visits of up to 72 hours every two months. In the UK they are banned, in the US and Australia the rules vary by state, but in most European countries they are allowed. In countries known for harsh penal systems - Mexico, Russia, Turkey and Brazil - conjugal visits are a basic right.
In a statement, the Corrections Department says the reasoning is one of safety and security. “Unfortunately, the reality is that visits pose a number of issues,” a spokesperson says.
“We have a commitment to preventing contraband coming into prisons, and visitors are one of the primary ways in which contraband enters prison.”
Matt Robson remembers June 29, 2000, a little differently. He certainly doesn’t recall being on the verge of tears.
“I remember having a shouting match with politicians from every party - it’s worth saying these were mostly men - the topic was very unfashionable at the time. There were cartoons in newspapers of me cosying up with big bastard inmates,” he says.
“The response was all politics. The debate had nothing to do with science and evidence.”
Conjugal rights for prisoners is a talking point you won’t hear discussed before September’s election. Since Robson’s political misjudgment, it’s been avoided like a plague.
Even now, Robson denies directly mentioning conjugal visits to the journalist who cornered him on the bridge.
“I was asked what I was working on and I replied ‘better access to families for prisoners’. Conjugal visits became the focus and I became everyone’s target,” he says.
“On reflection, I shouldn’t have even answered.”
Robson, who is now an immigration lawyer, remembers his trip to Australia well, where conjugal visits had indeed been a talking point.
“I was surprised to learn a programme for better visitor access was just pushed through in certain states there. I also went to Cuba, where family visits are allowed for every prisoner and it’s just considered normal.”
The Green Party’s spokesperson on law and order, David Clendon, believes the topic is evaded.
“There are certainly people who don’t like our chances if we were to bring it up.”
Clendon says, in a way, New Zealand is stuck in an era of “penal populism”, whereby political parties compete to be toughest on crime.
“This punitive approach hasn’t worked. We’ve ended up with severely overcrowded prisons and our initiatives aren’t getting good outcomes," he says.
“We should be comparing ourselves with best practice … let’s send our top people overseas to get a look at how successful new innovations have been. We were told Serco would bring new ideas to the table but it hasn’t. We should be driving this ourselves.”
Clendon visited Norwegian and Finnish prisons last year. “People were very surprised to learn New Zealand, which is internationally viewed as a very progressive country, doesn’t allow conjugal visits.”
In Norway, he visited a prison facility that included small buildings that resembled motel units. Inmates could there spend two or three days with their families.
“It was seen as a privilege and it affected their behaviour, especially during the critical last few months of their sentences. For many the idea of re-entering society is challenging and difficult,” he says.
“Anything we can do to reduce the alienation of inmates from the community they will eventually rejoin is only a good thing.”
THE MACHO BULLSHIT
For prisoners, sex is everything.
“It’s always being talked about in cells and guys always say it’s the first thing they want to do when they get out. It has a strong psychological effect and it touches us all in different ways,” Fete Taito says.
Frustration can build over years and eventually boil over in violent ways, he says.
All human beings, not just men, have important drives and desires.
“When a guy finally gets out, sex isn’t the same anymore. It can become abusive or just a notch-on-the-belt thing, including for guys with long-term partners.”
Taito has seen countless people emerge from the system and struggle to build, or rebuild, intimate relationships.
“Distrust and jealousy is maybe the most common thread you hear in prisons. Guys ring their wives at night and when they don’t answer, rumours start going around the place, ‘Oh, she’s sleeping with someone else’, ‘she’s a bitch’, and it really plays on guys’ minds,” he says.
“I really believe allowing conjugal visits could play a key role in rehabilitation and learning how to cope with prison and what prison means. At the least, it would help curb the macho bullshit that goes on. All human beings have important drives and desires.”
In 2012, research published by the Southern Criminal Justice Association found US states that allow conjugal visits have a lower level of sexual offending in prisons.
“Conjugal visitation helps to improve the functioning of a marriage by maintaining an inmate’s role as husband or wife, improve the inmate’s behavior while incarcerated, counter the effects of prisonization, and improve post-release success by enhancing the inmate’s ability to maintain ties with his or her family,” the research noted.
Nigel Hampton QC, who has 50 years of legal experience including working for the International Criminal Court in The Hague and as Tonga’s Chief Justice, says the argument for allowing conjugal visits is compelling.
“Across the world this is recognised as being an essential part of rehabilitation,” he says.
“If you want a prisoner upon release to take up a normal life in society, you do it by trying to maintain their own private relationships as best you can, whether that’s with their partners or children.”
He says prisons should not be aggressive, traumatic places. “Why repress one of a human being’s most primal and foremost mental and physical urgings and still expect them to be well-behaved?”
He believes the issue is also one of human rights.
“Prisoners have the right to be treated as any other human being. That goes for medical care, welfare and not being subjected to physical attacks, so the right to have relationships with other people and within that, sexual relationships, should be respected,” he says.
“Our rules don’t match up to our Bill of Rights.”
That time in the visitor rooms is everything.
Fete Taito says any discussion about rehabilitation should be about the “whole part of that person”.
“It can’t just be about giving someone work skills or putting them in an anti-violence course and sending them on their way. What about their home?” he says.
“I really, really strongly believe that because a lot of inmates come from difficult lives and dysfunctional families, just putting a little bit of money in their pocket isn’t enough. They don’t know what good relationships look like.”
He says prisoners think about things like sex, relationships and children more than anything.
“That time in the visitor rooms is everything.”
Matt Robson may have been attacked for making the suggestion 17 years ago, but he still believes he was on to something. He says there’s clear evidence that shows prisoners who maintain stronger connections with their families reoffend less.
“In a way, the current way of doing things is only grooming the next generation of prisoner,” he says.
“If a child or a partner comes into a prison and it’s a traumatic, cold, disengaged experience, that can have terrible psychological effects. Better cultivating that relationship not only helps with a prisoner’s behaviour and their eventual reintegration with society, but their family dynamic.”
A DIRTY WORD
Garth McVicar founded the Sensible Sentencing Trust a year after Robson’s political faux-pas. The hard-line law and order lobbyist would have been first in the queue to take down the Alliance MP.
He says he’s been called a “radical redneck” for arguing public opinion in New Zealand “has become so politically correct, the word punishment is almost like a dirty word”.
“If you’re not going to be punished for breaking the law, where the hell are we going to end up as a nation?”
McVicar is clear his, and his trust, is comfortably opposed to conjugal visits.
“We think the more you normalise prison, the more it becomes the type of place people don’t mind returning to. We already have a high recidivism rate, we don’t want even more of a blowout in reoffending,” he says.
McVicar once, accompanying Government officials, visited foreign prisons where conjugal visits are allowed. But that didn’t change his view on rehabilitation.
“Their systems are completely different to ours. Prison here is used as a last resort. Most of our prisoners have had numerous previous offences and in terms of trying to turn their lives around, it should have already happened,” he says.
“Once someone is sent to prison in New Zealand, it’s time to say, ‘we’re going to punish you and that includes no conjugal rights’. If not, what’s the deterrent? There’s none.”
The Corrections Department has no plans to review its blanket ban on conjugal visits.
It says it understands the importance of visitors maintaining family and social relationships, which can increase the chances of a prisoner successfully reintegrating into the community.
“Where possible, we look to locate prisoners in a prison near to family members. We offer family days, parenting education and other programmes to encourage constructive relationships between prisoners and their families.”
THE AVERAGE NZER
In 2011, then-Corrections Minister Judith Collins opened the first two Mother and Baby Units at Christchurch Women's Prison and Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility.
Matt Robson finds it ironic, considering he was attacked for the same suggestion, and because, “back then on the campaign trail, Judith was perhaps the strongest voice shouting me down and saying we were too soft”.
But away from the campaigning and the mud-slinging and the hot air, Robson says he found, “if you got even the sternest hardliners in a room away from the noise, they could be quite reasonable to talk to”.
I just find it revolting.
“But in the public eye, they had to be seen to be a certain way.”
In terms of prisoner rights, New Zealand’s ban on voting is the more widely debated subject.
On that, Nigel Hampton has a similar perspective. “We’ve waxed and waned about this for years, but quite why a person’s crime should determine whether their civil rights to vote are cut off remains a mystery to me.”
“A person is a voter whether they are in or out of prison. Voting rights, like conjugal rights, should be basic human rights in our democratic society.”
When conjugal visits have been publicly discussed, it has been as a peripheral issue.
Several prisoners have spoken out about wanting to donate their sperm, for instance, most recently in May when convicted murderer Karl Nuku presented a petition to Parliament.
“I don't think the average New Zealander would see that while someone is in prison as a consequence of their actions that they should have the right to parent while they're behind the wire,” said Corrections Minister Louise Upston.
She also said last month, when asked about the marriage between murderer Liam Reid and his former lawyer Davina Murray, “I just find it revolting”.
Nigel Hampton isn’t surprised. “There seems to be a will in this country to ignore the fact that the real punishment of prison is the loss of freedom.”
“We have this Victorian attitude that locking people away isn’t enough - that prison has to come with hard labour and must be conducted under extreme hardships and conditions. It’s this sort of culture that leads to people being locked down for 19 to 23 hours every day."
He says the idea that a husband or wife would be able to sleep with their partners while in prison “must fill politicians with horror”.
“Matt Robson might be the only exception.”