Democracy Behind Bars: How Arthur Taylor is taking on central government from prison and winning

Democracy Behind Bars: How Arthur Taylor is taking on central government from prison and winning

One night in late 2006, whilst incarcerated at Mount Eden Prison in Auckland, Arthur Taylor, arguably New Zealand’s most famous living prisoner, had a vivid dream. It wasn’t quite a Martin Luther King type of dream; those pivotal moments were some time away yet. At the outset of our conversation, Taylor, who currently still has six years left on his prison sentence, began describing how, in the dream, he saw his wife “holding a beautiful little baby in her arms, breastfeeding it, and there was real love in her eyes.” Dreaming of your spouse and the life that lies beyond the thick walls that confine you isn’t out of the ordinary for inmates, but conceiving a child whilst you’re behind bars presents a difficult task, even for someone with Taylor’s skillset. Once he had told his wife about the dream, she told him to find a way of making the dream become a reality, and so he set about planning a way of smuggling his sperm out of prison. When I asked how he actually managed to do it, Taylor responded in a careful, calculated tone: “I was in a unit that had a fridge with a freezer compartment and I had an officer who, ya know?”

If Taylor wants something done, he’ll find a way of getting it done, and the conception of his daughter is just one example that can attest to this tenacity. Many years ago, Taylor studied for a legal executive qualification, and, although he passed with flying colours, he “couldn’t get out of prison to sit the examinations,” so never actually graduated. In saying that, his greatest achievement to date, of which he has had many, has arguably been a legal one. The achievement that stands out, partly because it represents the first time in New Zealand legal history that a court has given a ‘declaration of inconsistency’ as a judgement, is his recently successful challenge in the High Court to the Government’s blanket ban on all prisoners voting in elections, which is contained in the Electoral Amendment Act 2010. Prior to this amendment, only inmates serving sentences of imprisonment fewer than three years were given the right to vote. However, now any person who is in prison on election day cannot vote, creating arbitrary distinctions with enormous consequences. For example, two people who commit the same crime in the week leading up to this year’s general election could be sentenced very differently; one may receive a month-long prison sentence (and therefore lose their right to vote in that election), while the other may receive a community service sentence lasting a similar period (and therefore retain the right to vote).

Before Parliament even passed the bill, the Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson, wrote in a report to Parliament that “the blanket disenfranchisement of prisoners appears to be inconsistent with Section 12 of the Bill of Rights Act and that it cannot be justified.” While the High Court’s recent judgment signals an increasing hope for the prisoner voting cause (even if the Crown appeal of the case spreads a level of doubt on that hope), the true importance of the judgement could be the doors it opens for other cases. Because the High Court’s judgement represents the first ever ‘declaration of inconsistency’ imposed by a New Zealand court, Taylor says it will “act as a chiller effect on Parliament, who now have to think, “shit, if we pass this legislation, will someone take us to court for breaching the BORA? (Bill of Rights Act)” Somewhat unsurprisingly, the Government remained resolute in protecting the legislation, appealing the case to New Zealand’s second most authoritative court, the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal hearing occurred between 25 and 28 October 2016, with the final judgment not yet announced. Taylor claims that the government appealed not necessarily because they think they can win, but in order to “stall the decision beyond the next election,” which, strategically, is an astute political move from the National Party considering the might that prisoners could potentially wield in the election if given the vote once again. Were prisoners able to vote in the 2014 General Election, for example, the result could have been significantly different. The Te Tai Tokerau electorate ended up being a two-horse race between Labour’s Kelvin Davis and Mana’s Hone Harawira (who had held the seat ever since claiming it in the 2005 General Election). The race came right down to the wire. Davis eventually won the seat by just 743 votes after the 22,000 total votes were counted. The electorate is home to the Northland Regional Corrections Facility (Ngawha), which houses 548 prisoners who Taylor said were almost all “keen on the Mana Party ... simply because they had very prisoner friendly policies.” It is likely that the families of those prisoners would have taken some dissuading from rival political parties to vote against the prisoner friendly policies the Mana Party were promising during their campaign. “Imagine if Hone had got in [to Parliament], and he took a Mana list member,” Taylor hypothesised, “that’s two votes, that could’ve been the end of the [National Party] majority, so it could’ve really had a significant effect!”

The pervading trend in Taylor’s life is undoubtedly his recidivist nature, having been imprisoned for 38 of the last 40 years, but another trend that intertwines with this recidivism is his ability to make the authorities look remarkably foolish, something which was present far before his numerous legal challenges ever began. A particularly notable example is his most recent prison escape (the last of his twelve total escapes), where he had “lost all the police, and I was down by the BNZ Bank building running on a roof there and unfortunately the bloody roof gave way and I crashed down onto a poor woman sitting on the toilet. I calmed her and asked if she needed a doctor and hung around, but she was in real shock … and [when she left the toilet] her boss asked why she had dust all over her. She told him what happened and then he said, ‘shit that’s why all the armed police are outside on the road. They might be looking for him.’”

On another occasion, Taylor was on the run for nine months, leading to the police creating ‘Operation Needle’ in order to attempt to locate him. Taylor refers to this operation amusingly as “more like operation needle in a haystack” due to the length of time he was able to evade the authorities. He eventually “leased a camping ground from Kaipara District Council, and lived in the community [Dargaville], just fine.” He refers to this period as a transformative one, believing it to have proved to himself “that I could live without crime ... and so long as you haven’t got that stigma of criminality out there with you it’s usually fine.”

Taylor’s metamorphosis from career criminal to prisoners’ rights advocate occurred largely during the thirteen months he was interned in ‘Siberia’ (what New Zealand prisoners call segregation), spanning throughout the large majority of 2011. The Department of Corrections set it up specifically to house Taylor in order to deal with his increasing influence within the prison. Upon his release from segregation, Taylor requested an Ombudsman’s report, which described his treatment during that period as “cruel and inhumane for the purposes of the UN Convention Against Torture”. Shedding light on the period, he told me that this was due to the Department of Corrections “deliberately leaving lights on and [making sure] I had no power and no water for lengthy periods.” In hindsight, Corrections may look at this decision and think they played the wrong hand by segregating Taylor, as it sparked something of a backlash inside him, which turned out to be far more dangerous than what they were attempting to suppress. Ultimately, if they considered his criminal pursuits to be an annoyance, his legal ones have tested them far more.

Unfortunately, it is far more common to find an article berating him for the vast financial burden the taxpayer is left to absorb because of his legal battles, than the importance of the rights he is protecting. The figure of $370,000 given in the article by New Zealand Herald journalist Simon Plumb is the cost the Crown (Government) must pay, which would be doubled if Taylor wasn’t representing himself in court (the winner of the case generally has their legal costs paid by the loser). Additionally, because the government lost that case, they are the ones who decided to appeal it, and by doing so they increased the price tag, not Taylor as Plumb would want to have you believe. If one side is to be blamed for heaping this legal cost on the taxpayer, it can only logically lie at the Crown’s feet, especially considering it was them who set this case in motion by legislating inconsistently with the NZBORA.

Taylor explained that because “[I] can’t go out and represent the unemployed or refugees, I represent prisoners ... I have the standing to do that because the courts have said I can,” going on to proudly state that he considers his “[legal] work a payback to society.” He sees the protection of prisoners, who are on the bottom of society’s hierarchy, as protecting the rest of us further up the chain. It is somewhat surprising that Taylor has been strong enough to not give up on society in the same way much of society has given up on him, and on prisoners more generally. While the rigid rules of the legal profession accommodates Taylor’s brazen advocacy, the same does not necessarily extend to the rest of the population, who are quick to lump the burden of the extensive cost of the legal system on the plaintiff (the party who initiates the litigation), despite the almost unanimous agreement in legal circles that the Crown are in the wrong in this case. For Taylor, the fight goes on regardless, because “if you breach the human rights of one person, then you’re breaching the human rights of all people. Human rights attach to us simply because we are human beings.”

When I spoke to him, his parole hearing was just a few days away. After telling me he was hopeful but cautious of the likelihood of his release, I asked what he would do the day he gets released, and he told me, “I’d like to get together with my family and have a good catch up, a really nice meal, and a bottle of very nice wine.” He had organised accommodation, employment, and a comprehensive plan his release. His specialist parole lawyer, Sue Earl, thought their presentation to the parole hearing was the best she had ever seen, but for the eighteenth time, his release was once again declined. Nevertheless, Arthur Taylor has shown that whether behind bars or not, he has the influence and intellect to cause the authorities serious problems, and he has fought for too long to give up now. 

This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2017.
Posted 12:43pm Sunday 12th March 2017 by Joe Higham.