Te Kuiti's human zoo

BELINDA FEEK
Last updated 05:00 16/08/2014
Te Kuiti District Court

MIDDLE AGES?: People bailed after appearing in the Te Kuiti District Court wait for the bail papers in this outdoor cage, while they chat with family and friends. 

Te Kuiti
BIZARE SIGHT: Te Kuiti mother Toni Ngauma chats to her son as he waits for his bail papers.

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The incongruous site of a open-air holding pen dubbed "a human zoo" outside the courthouse is just part and parcel of living in the King Country town of Te Kuiti.

But the sight of it has shocked justice advocates around the country who have described the outside holding area as "barbaric" and "positively Victorian".

Te Kuiti mum Toni Ngauma said her 18-year-old son, who spent time in the cage after being sentenced for drink driving, felt like an animal.

"I asked him if he wanted a drink or some food and he was like ‘nah, I feel like an animal, I don't want to be eating in a cage'."

Tony Fisher, general manager of district courts, said the Ministry of Justice had received no negative feedback about the "secure entranceway".

Defendants often asked to use the area and some were put in it when "the waiting area inside the courthouse is in use".

"Whenever defendants are in the secure area, they are monitored by police escort staff. No complaints have been received from defendants who have used the area," he said.

There were no plans to modify the secure entranceway, built in 2007, as Te Kuiti operated as a hearings-only court.

Both Blenheim and Nelson district courts have a similar set up.

Fisher said the entranceway was built "for use as a controlled area to load and unload prisoners". However, those appearances were decreasing as most remand prisoners appeared via audio-visual link in Hamilton.

When the Waikato Times visited the cage, between the courthouse and Waitomo District Council in Queen St, there appeared to be no presence or monitoring by police escort staff, unless it was to hand over papers to an accused and let them out.

Retired defence lawyer Peter Williams QC called the practice "humiliating" and "absolutely barbaric".

"How the justice department can justify a holding pen is just unbelievable, it's beyond imagination . . . just absolutely wrong," the lawyer of 60 years experience said.

"Whoever is responsible for it should be dealt some type of discipline and the thing should be dismantled and the proper remand rooms or accommodation put up to civilised standards."

Te Kuiti resident Cherie Tewao, 21, said being in the cage was embarrassing.

"You get people taking your photo and putting them on Facebook . . . shame."

Another local resident said people had just learned to live with it, she said.

"It's just the way it is now."

Te Kuiti man Moki Hepi had been in there "a few times" and didn't like it.

"I thought it sucked cos everyone can see me."

Eva Kawhena, who had moved her family from Kawhia to Te Kuiti, said the Justice Ministry could have built the cage out the back of the court house - out of view.

"It shouldn't be open, especially if you're getting bail. That should happen in a room because you're still innocent."

However, they both don't want the courthouse to close as it would mean travelling 30 minutes to Te Awamutu or an hour to Hamilton.

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Wellington human rights lawyer and member of the NZ Council for Civil Liberties Michael Bott said the cage "almost has an element of theatre about it".

"In many ways the cage on a street sounds like it's barely a step removed from the stocks a couple of hundred years ago which were used to shame people . . . it's positively Victorian."

Bott said not all the people in the cage were convicted of a crime either which would appear to breach people's privacy. He said it was a clear breach of S23(5) of the Bill of Rights Act which states "everyone deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the person".

"Not everyone who is bailed is convicted . . . it just seems bizarre."

Roger Brooking, who has 15 years experience working in the justice arena, was gobsmacked.

"It's totally weird. I have never seen anything like that before. I had no idea there was a human zoo for offenders in Te Kuiti. I think it's disgusting, quite frankly."

"This is something you would see in a third world country, or something out of the middle ages."

Waitomo Mayor Brian Hanna was reluctant to comment as the council had battled with the Ministry to keep the court open after many around the country were closed two years ago. However, he admitted it could be seen as "unusual".

belinda.feek@fairfaxmedia.co.nz

- Waikato Times

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