Merivale offers a new way for violent criminals

22:15, Nov 30 2012
Lyn Voice
GAINED RESPECT: Salisbury St Foundation director Lyn Voice in the courtyard outside the Merivale residential centre. She has met some ‘‘pretty hardcore thugs’’ in her line of work. Photo: DON SCOTT/FAIRFAX NZ

The men who live at the Salisbury St Foundation look fearsome.

Most bear facial tattoos and scars and have missing teeth. They often speak in broken English and walk with an institutionalised swagger learnt in a life where weakness is despised.

The men who live at the Salisbury St Foundation carry their histories on their faces.

Some are recidivist offenders. Some are rapists. Some are murderers. They have spent years behind bars.

The men who live at the Salisbury St Foundation know their crimes are too heinous to forget.

They come from horrific backgrounds and they have been hardened by the prison culture.


Many of the men appear irredeemable, but their defiant attitudes are being diluted; they have walked away from all that was once familiar and they have called out for the help to change.

Salisbury St Foundation is a residential centre founded by a former inmate who saw the need to support prisoners as they reintegrated into an ever-changing society.

Rather than freeing prisoners and sending them back to their old neighbourhood, their old friends and their old ways, the foundation provides a therapeutic transition into a world that many of the residents had never known existed.

Grown men are told to brush their teeth twice a day, to wear deodorant and to wash their clothes. They are taught how to cook and clean.

And they are given an identity - many have never had a bank account, held a driver's licence or applied for the benefit before.

Within the two-storey white homestead, some of New Zealand's nastiest men are born again.

The 11-bedroom halfway house is unexpectedly on the fringe of Merivale's upmarket shopping precinct and, in the past three decades, hundreds of notorious killers, sexual predators and recidivist criminals have called the upper-class suburb home.

Most of the residents are in the high-risk classification.

But they have all committed to change, graduated from violence prevention programmes in prison and been screened by the Corrections Department before being accepted into the suburban centre.

Upon arrival, they are forced to abide by the foundation's "zero tolerance to violence", are supervised 24/7, live by daily rosters, fulfil their cleaning and cooking responsibilities and attend group therapy sessions.

They are not allowed cellphones or computers.

If any resident threatens violence, they are discharged and usually sent back to prison immediately. There is no leniency when it comes to violence.

Lyn Voice has sat at the helm of the foundation for more than a decade and has weathered many storms.

She is a large woman with a formidable presence.

"You know what these guys have done but when they sit down and talk to you, you can't believe they did it," she says.

The director endured a similar childhood to many of the residents and has earned the respect of her colleagues and the parolees.

Her chosen line of work has exposed her to some "pretty hardcore thugs" and she has feared for her life at times, but never from the residents she works with - it's the men who are rejected from the centre and sent back to prison that she fears.

Voice says the residents at the foundation usually try to keep a low profile while they carry out their parole term.

"The guys don't hang out at the gate or down the driveway. They don't want to frighten people and there are guys in the group that you would just look at and feel intimidated by," she says.

But when two high-risk residents allegedly absconded from the property in the dead of night on November 7, a national spotlight turned on the halfway house.

Ivan Campbell, 46, and Jaydon Galland, 18, were on the run for almost a week before being caught by police in Arthur's Pass. Campbell was jailed in 2001 after chaining up a teenage boy in a wardrobe and tattooing and sexually abusing him.

Campbell had been at the foundation for a few months and when Voice heard he had left, she was not only "gutted" for him but also for his family, the other residents and her staff.

The residential centre quickly attracted headlines such as "residents live in fear of crims" and Voice says the attention was "horrible for everyone here".

A few weeks after Campbell's arrest, he wrote to Voice from prison apologising and thanking her and the foundation for "treating him like a human being".

Before Campbell and Galland, there had only been one other resident who had breached his parole conditions and fled the centre, and that was in the past year. He was caught within 20 minutes, Voice said.

It was unusual for residents to abscond from the property because of the rigorous process they had to go through to get accepted.

"Most of the guys are proud to be here. A lot of them say it's the best thing they have ever done and that without this place they would not have made it. Their ultimate goal is to get out of here," she says.

Voice has no fear challenging the residents to live with their labels.

"For someone who has taken a life or is a sex offender, they will be seen as a violent person forever and they need to accept the facts - they won't be able to get rid of those labels."

One paroled murderer read a newspaper article about his victim's family calling for him to be sent back to prison and he told the group that the family needed to "get over it, it's 18 years ago".

Voice had silenced him when she asked: "Who is it for you to say when someone should get over their grief? Especially when you caused that grief."

She knows the crimes these men have committed, she knows the extent of their violence, she knows what can make them snap, but she is also privy to their vulnerabilities, fears and regrets.

Voice recalled shopping at The Warehouse with one "lifer" who was freed a few years ago. He had spent 18 years in prison, it was his first week out and she was helping him buy underwear.

When the shop assistant approached him to ask if he needed help, the man had recoiled and begged Voice to "please get me out of this shop".

Once outside, she asked him what had happened and he said he couldn't understand the underwear sizing and was too embarrassed to ask for help.

Another former "lifer" had walked out of a bank asking "what the hell is an eftpos card" when the teller refused to give him a bank book.

Others used to go grocery shopping at 2am to avoid crowds, she says.

On group outings some residents have been recognised and screamed at by strangers in public; residents have also been asked to leave restaurants because they were scaring other customers.

When the residential centre was damaged in the September earthquake, no motel would accept the men. Their gym was closed down after the quake and no other gym in Christchurch will give the group a membership.

"We know we are a minority. We know what it feels like to be rejected and we understand why," she says.

Any public group outings are planned in advance and the residents are never taken anywhere near children. They often go mountainbiking through the forest or tramping around the South Island, she says.

Several of the foundation's residents work fulltime during their parole, and Voice says a few work for demolition companies in the red zone.

The residents also work at food banks and support the local church by setting up Christmas and Easter decorations each year.

Two staff members are former residents who now act as role models, and graduates are often invited back for dinner to catch up with staff.

One former resident is a well-known Christchurch businessman who sponsors foundation graduates. The Corrections Department and part of the residents' dole payments help fund the centre.

Living in a safe community is not necessarily about "locking people up and throwing away the key", Voice says. It's important not to hide away "what doesn't look good or behave the right way".

"Most of the men in prison are damaged, so how do you expect them to live in your community and not damage others? These are the men that will potentially hurt our children and if they haven't got the skills or values to care for children, what more can you expect from them?"

Sixty-five per cent of the men who graduate from the foundation's programme do not go on to reoffend, and Voice believes the residential centre makes the community a safer place.

"This is about giving them a chance rather than throwing them to the gutter like they always have been." She hopes that one day residential centres such as the Salisbury St Foundation will be part of New Zealand's prisoner release programme.

The Press