Kelly Dennett05:00, Apr 17 2022
Jailhouse lawyer Arthur Taylor and the Department of Corrections have been in a battle of wills for decades. Where does it end? Kelly Dennett reports.
On Wednesday Attorney-General counsel Sean Kinsler stood in courtroom six of the High Court at Wellington and closed his arguments by returning to the beginning of the story. The tale about an “extraordinarily wide-ranging claim” of a breach of rights, from prison incidents dating back more than 10 years, could be traced back to his opponent’s origins as a conman.
The claimant, Arthur William Taylor, had his head hunched over documents as Kinsler painted him as not credible, unreliable; a liar, a manipulator. A raconteur keen to colour his crimes with good-hearted flourish. But Taylor’s Road to Damascus narrative should be treated with caution, Kinsler said. “It’s all in the past, says Mr Taylor,” Kinsler said, referring to Taylor’s deception. “It’s not in the past.”
A day later it was Taylor’s turn. He was a man with a history of trauma and anxiety, but he’d had an impressive track record in the courts, and he rattled off a list of apparent endorsements made by judges over the years. “The only reason I win cases in court successfully and consistently is I’m simply asking [Corrections] to comply with their existing policies and structures,” said Taylor. “Now I’m the bad guy.”
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At the end of two days of arguments, Justice Andru Isac adjourned the civil trial that had begun seven weeks earlier.
“You [won’t] be surprised to hear me say it’s not a simple case… and it’s going to take me awhile to unpack. I’ll be reserving my judgment. It won’t be available for some months.”https://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.510.1_en.html#goog_885887212PauseUnmuteCurrent Time 0:15/Duration 3:17Loaded: 30.20% FullscreenHAMISH MCNEILLY/STUFFJailhouse lawyer Arthur Taylor owns a former police vehicle with a “well-known” personalised plate and what appears to be two bullet holes.
This July self-described jailhouse lawyer Arthur Taylor turns 66, and if he’s successful in his latest civil suit – the Crown calls the damages sought “wildly excessive” – he could become a millionaire. Soon, his parole term for a sentence of more than 17 years will also have ended, and he’ll no longer be under Corrections’ thumb.
But this is unlikely to be a fairytale ending, tidily stored for the annals of prisoner rights history. Taylor will keep fighting the good fight, because that is all he knows.
“This is one of the great antagonisms of criminal justice in New Zealand,” says sociologist Jarrod Gilbert. “Arthur Taylor and the system. Corrections have lost some important cases, and I don’t just mean with Arthur, just generally, where they have been forced to reflect, and I know that for certain, so there is a possibility they learn lessons, but undoubtedly there are a number of individuals who are sick to death of Arthur.”
The paradox is that Taylor’s useful knowledge will be overshadowed by how he gained it. A noisy ex-inmate with a criminal record won’t be getting much ear-time from Corrections, and a system that Taylor has spent his whole life publicly critiquing is unlikely to suddenly polish up to his expectations.
“ [A truce] requires good will on both sides,” said Gilbert. “And there doesn’t appear to be a huge amount of that.”
To begin to understand the complexities of this power struggle, or this war of attrition as the court put it this week, flip back a few chapters to 1960s Masterton where a collision with the truancy system saw Taylor turfed into a boys’ home where he learned to brawl, steal and lie. Taylor says that was his fate embossed, that those earliest experiences of a child penal system designed to stoke fear and obedience, did exactly the opposite. This is largely his defence for his life of crime (burglaries, fraud, bank robberies, escapes).
He’s now facing further drug charges, but Taylor’s advocates say the allegations are lean. Corrections would argue (they declined to put anyone up for interview) that this is an inherent reason why he’s untrustworthy.
From the other side of the fence, Taylor says Corrections is overzealous in its management of him. Emails produced to the court appear to show its national office and then Auckland Prison manager Neil Beales exploring options to curtail his activities in prison. Those and other documents revealed concern about what backlash to expect from Taylor, including media attention and litigation.
It’s hard to know how much, if any, of that is a consequence of Taylor consistently taking legal action. Initially defending himself at trials, and using the prison inspectorate and ombudsman to lodge claims of unfair treatment, by the 2010s Taylor was adept at summoning senior prison officials to court. He’s upheld prisoners’ right to vote, won payouts for himself and others for unlawful strip searches, and fought to overturn a ban on smoking in prisons.
Taylor’s latest suit largely centres around his 2017 transfer from Auckland Prison to Waikeria, which he says was illegal. Furthermore, during a scuffle at Auckland he says he became unconscious, and alleges he didn’t receive proper care, claiming he woke up dazed and confused at Waikeria. He and advocate Hazel Heal say footage of the transfer, which is suppressed, is shocking. Crown lawyers say Taylor was feigning unconsciousness.
Other claims include the banning of the defunct Truth newspaper at Auckland Prison, and months of segregation which Taylor described as arbitrary, pointing to shoddy documentation as evidence. The defendants – the Attorney General appears on behalf of Corrections –say it’s simply a case of bad paperwork, describing Taylor as a difficult inmate, managed within the confines of an old and under resourced prison.
Although Crown lawyers are keen to characterise Taylor’s claims as absurd (“torture and paperwork malfunctions,” Kinsler summarised, slightly mockingly), Taylor’s motivations are unlikely to wane – he has a lot of broad support within academic and reform circles, and he considers the amount of correspondence he receives from inmates seeking his help, show there is more work to be done.
“He’s not a chump or a chancer who is having a crack,” said Gilbert.
“He’s a very astute individual, and the criminal justice system is not full of people like that, and if it was, more questions would undoubtedly be answered. In some ways, if you pull back the lens, he may be doing the system a favour by identifying pain points that are normally accepted.”
While all prisoners face prejudice on their release, some of the challenges of penal institutions is that most build their possibilities around worst-case scenarios, quoting risk aversion and safety as their top priorities, says University of California criminology, law and society professor Keramet Reiter.
“They leverage that [off the idea of] the scary monster, and the public has little evidence to counter that with.” The question becomes: “Is this [restriction] to protect safety and security, or is it punitive? It’s almost always both.”
Squeaky wheels are therefore often labelled manipulative or untruthful. Pervasive, she said, is “a knee-jerk reaction about whether they’re trustworthy.”
Meanwhile, people who challenge the legality of the system are in “very vulnerable positions”. Those who know enough to threaten the system will encounter institutions who “work really hard to track them, insist they haven’t changed and insist they can’t be treated”.
While in New Zealand Taylor is a unique figure in the prisoner rights world, the US had revolutionary George Jackson, jailed for a minor infraction, leading him to speaking out influentially about racism, and segregation. Prison authorities painted him, similar to Taylor, as having ego-centric qualities.
In New Zealand, former prisoners Greg Newbold and Dr Paul Wood formed specialities in similar arenas. Which is all to say that those with extensive knowledge of justice and prisons, whatever the route, may have a future on the other side of the receiving office.
“I would have thought [Taylor’s] experience has real value,” said Gilbert. “Particularly because of who he is – a smart guy who can see it in ways he can communicate. To appreciate that, you have to get over the idea that the guy is seen as a hood and a nuisance.”
But unlike the famous Hollywood story of Frank Abagnale Jr, the US crook who claims to have eventually worked with the FBI, there’s unlikely to be such an ending for Taylor and Corrections.
Whatever the path forward for them, Auckland University law professor Mark Henaghan believes Taylor’s energy or determination is not at a crossroads.
“I don’t see Arthur stopping if he thinks things aren’t right. He’s built that mindset, and it’s his way of giving back to society.” Henaghan recalls being on a Corrections working group some years ago and being keen to bring Taylor along, thinking he’d be “extremely helpful”.
“I think people didn’t take it seriously… They just said ‘oh no, no’. It wasn’t something they could even understand at that point, they see him as a problem rather than a solution. It’s a big hurdle for people who work there.”
Corrections declined an interview, citing its privacy obligations. A spokesperson said, “We respect the right of any person to raise concerns about the way in which we carry out our work, and welcome any feedback from people on how they are managed by Corrections. We also respect people’s rights to seek the views of the court where they believe we have acted contrary to law.”
As for Taylor, he says he’s not in it for the money, and he’d love nothing more than to kick back and lead a relaxing life.
‘‘I don’t wake up in the morning wanting to sue some bastard, I’d much rather be kicking back with a Canadian Club. [But] as long as they keep giving me reason to sue them, I’ll continue. I’m hoping that commonsense will start to prevail.’’