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Sarah's story

"It might be one thing to do drugs, or to murder someone, but to have a sex offender as a son is the pits. As a mother, I wonder - how did I actually have a son who could do that to another woman?"

[Sarah* is the mother of two boys, the eldest is currently in prison for a sex offence. It is his second time inside, the first time was eight years, the second time has been five years at the date of this interview]

I’ve got two sons and my oldest son is currently in prison. My younger son’s in his 30s and this has really affected him, big time. He’s married, with sweet little children.

Basically, I grew up with a typical, middle-class, rural Southland life, on a farm. I suppose when you look at how kids have to live now, it was a pretty idyllic lifestyle, working as kids on the farm. I went away to nursing in Timaru when I was 17 and from then I’ve always stayed nursing. I’d always wanted to be a nurse, didn’t want to do anything else. It’s been a good career for me, and it’s given me focus, and financial stability. I was married at 22, to a Māori, which, coming out of rural Southland, in the ‘70s wasn’t done. The only Māoris we actually saw in Southland were in the shearing sheds. And my parents certainly did not want me to get married.

I had my oldest son when I was 28, so I was an old mum. I’d been working, because I did love my job, so I didn’t really want children for a while. And then all of a sudden, your biological clock starts ticking and you want babies. So I had a son. It was so tough. He was a challenge, always was just tough. You can never be the perfect parent or do the right thing and he was a kid that I could never seem to do the right thing by. I tried to help from different agencies and check for allergies and behavioural problems. And I went to Creative Parenting. I’ll never forget, another parent said, ’I just put them in their room for time out’. My son would have ripped his wallpaper off his bedroom wall. So it was just really hard. These days, they diagnose kids, and do things. I remember the paediatrician saying he had oppositional defiant behaviour. I said, ‘what am I supposed to do with that information?’

And yet, my younger son was a different kettle of fish altogether. They’re less than two years apart. It was just so easy with my second son. So, so easy. The plunket nurse said my first son was slow to develop, I think they both potty-trained at the same time. And talking was slow to develop. There weren’t so many resources back then and it was quite difficult when kids have temper-tantrums all the time, really hard, and my husband was always away working, so often you’re sort of on your own. Always sort of felt like a solo parent. That was just how it was. And then there was the sharemarket crash of ’85-’87 and interest rates were really high then, 22%. We’d been on a small farmlet and it was just so hard to make ends meet, so we moved into town and had to start all over again.

My husband was an alcoholic, but not an alcoholic drinking every day, he was one of those alcoholics that sort of binge-drink. He might be all right for a couple of months, then all of a sudden go away and you wouldn’t see him again till Monday, type of thing. It wasn’t till the boys were probably 7 and 9 that I decided that I needed to leave. You can take so much, and then you think – no, I’m out of here. And once you’ve made that decision, there you go. It didn’t get easier, but I had felt like I was doing it on my own anyway. So, it was really, really hard for the children when we did split up. I stayed in South Canterbury for probably another two years and then, for my job it was better for me to move to a bigger centre. For money and to make sure you make ends meet and look after yourself, really.

So I just remember how it was for my younger son at the time, it was quite heartbreaking, really. Kids manipulate parents, they know how to push buttons, and they play parents off against each other. So, we moved, but my older son went to boarding school. He was at boarding school for the next 12 years. We did it because we felt that it was the most stable thing for him, because it was structure. He’s always needed structure, unlike my younger son, who can fly with things, but my older son needed a lot of structure. If you were out somewhere and you didn’t have your meal times exactly on time or he’s hungry, that’s when you get a tantrum. I’ve known other kids like that - you’ve got to have things really structured and my older son really needed that. That was the reason we sent him to the boarding school. He actually thrived there. He might not say that now, he says he can’t remember anything about it, but he got the headmaster’s prize for the best, the most helpful boy in the school. I do remember the first day I took him there, the poor headmaster had to peel him off me, because he was screaming, ‘’don’t leave me, mummy’’ and tipped a bottle of shampoo all over me, actually. But at the time I thought, with us getting divorced, it was probably more stable, that he wasn’t coming and going all the time. Then we could still see him on a regular basis and the kids had to write, in those days.

My younger son always lived with me, because my older son’s behaviour was quite hard to handle, and often became quite violent. So he did spend more time away, and he also went back to live with his father and his then-partner of the time. So the boys really had a different upbringing and when you think of what they were doing in their highschool years, which was a bit out of my control, but even when you look back and think – how could I have changed that? I don’t know. It was just really tough.

Boarding school was expensive, so we tried sending my older son to the local high school here, but he got bullied so badly after the first term, we sent him back. And he couldn’t stay at home, because he was becoming abusive and violent towards me. And even though we had counselling and stuff like that, nothing seemed to work very well. So he went back to South Canterbury and was with his father for some time, but that also didn’t work out because of anger problems and all the rest of it. So he boarded. So, in some ways, he’s never known that sort of stable home background, because of the way he behaved, he never had that same stability that my younger son had with me. His interests were cars, and motorbikes, really rural stuff. He had difficulty managing at school. And when you don’t fit with mainstream, then unfortunately, you gravitate towards the other kids that aren’t quite good mainstream kids. And so when he went back to South Canterbury, I’ve got no idea who his friends were, because he wasn’t around me very much.

As a parent, you feel like you’ve failed, by not having him in your care. The boys have only told me some stuff now. I always used to send the boys to their father in the holidays. What they didn’t tell me was that half the time he was drunk when he was with them. I never got to know that and I said to them, ‘’why didn’t you tell me?’’ and they said, ‘’well, you’d have stopped us from going.’’ Kids do that.

My youngest son hasn’t been perfect, either, but my older son certainly obviously got in with the wrong crowds. As a mother, one of the things I’ve done is I’ve always rescued him. And of course, when he did get convicted and sent to prison, I couldn’t rescue him there. But I would think back over lots of situations which happened when he was a teenager. I ended up rescuing him out of situations like when he was boarding. That’s the sad thing, instead of coming home, he always ended up boarding - not with families, but often with a single parent with a son or something. Which was not great. Once, he was boarding with a nice lady, but she had a couple of boarders, plus she ran a sort of bed and breakfast place as well. There was an older boy who I think was into pornography a lot, and my son obviously developed a taste for pornography at quite an early age. He certainly, at 13 or 14, when he was getting exposed to that, was not chronologically that age. And I wouldn’t know half of it.

The sad thing was – he couldn’t be with his father, and he couldn’t be with me. So what do you do? You’re between a rock and a hard place. And I can remember, when he was down here once, I think he might have smashed a window, or something, ‘cause that wasn’t unusual, either. And I didn’t know what to do with him. I went up to the local Police Station, and this is how judgmental people are... when the policeman walked into my house, the first thing he said when he walked in, was ‘oh! You’ve got quite a nice home, here’. Surprised. It was that whole judgmental attitude - solo mother, kids are Māori. I thought, what the hell did you expect? But the police were judgmental like that.

My youngest son, when he was a teenager, would be with all of his mates and most of them are pakeha. He’d get picked up - they’d be walking along the street, and he said he remembered once, a female police officer stopped them and said, ’what are you guys doing?’ and she said to my oldest son, ’what are YOU doing, have you got a job?’ and he said, ’nah, I’m on the dole’. I asked him later, ’why did you say that to her?’ and he said, ‘cause that’s what she expected me to say. I said, ‘did she not say it to the others?’ He said, ‘no, she targeted me’. If you look at him, he’s got dreadlocks, and so she would automatically have thought – I know exactly what you are. But he’s not.

My older son, he – you know, if you’re cruising round and you don’t fit with good kids, you will gravitate to kids that do get into crap. And he did. His first crime was stealing somebody’s cannabis plants or something. And he did get a drug offence, for having been with cannabis. He would have been about 18. He’d left school early, he was wasting his time at school because he academically wasn’t fitting in and there wasn’t anything happening for him there. So he went and got a job on a dairy farm and that was ok for a while, he worked very hard at it. Then he went back to South Canterbury and it was once he went back up there that he got in with God knows who. And I ended up taking his car off him, because he was doing drink, drugs, losing the plot. And that would have been when he was maybe 19? I’d moved to Australia for a job and I’ll never forget getting the phone call to tell me that he had gone to prison. I was sitting over in Australia thinking - oh my God. It was just awful. I can’t even remember who rang me, but I remember having to ring the police to find out what on earth was happening. And since then, I have been put into a world I should never know anything about and people I should never have met. And it’s just been awful.

The shame is huge. You don’t talk about it, or at least you’ve got to be very careful when you talk about it. When my son went to prison, my family made comments like, ’oh my God, if I’d caught him, I’d have shot him’. Another was, ’it’s a good thing mum and dad are both dead, because they’d be turning in their graves’. So, to save my sanity, I stopped having contact with any of my family for probably about seven years.

It might be one thing to do drugs, or to murder someone, but to have a sex offender as a son is the pits. The absolute pits. It’s such a shameful thing. Because, as a mother, I wonder - how did I actually have a son who could do that to another woman? It’s terrible. Absolutely terrible. You think, did I create this? It’s always the mother’s fault, isn’t it? Well, people think that anyway. It’s been such a long, hard road. I moved back over to Australia and when you come to a place, you have to find a job, and you have to tell some people. But how do you talk about it? What do you say to people? You don’t trust people, because they’re going to judge you. And people do judge you, they really do. So you sort of pick your friends, really pick your friends.

My older son was 21 when he first went to prison, so my younger son had only just turned 20. For him, the shame was HUGE. He was a mess. I had to ring the guy he was apprenticed to and say, look, my son’s not dealing with this very well, just be understanding of him at work, because he’s probably really angry about it. The first thing people ask is about your family, – where’s your brother? What does your brother do? How do you reply that he’s in prison? So it was massive enough to deal with all that.

And then of course you go and visit. So we started the treks from here to Christchurch to go and visit him. Probably at least once a month we used to try to go. Corrections does not make visiting easy for you. You had to be there by 9 o’clock, or quarter to 9 in the morning. So we’d leave here either the day before, or at half past 4 in the morning. When you get there, people treat you like a criminal when you go in there as a visitor. You’re searched, they go through your things. Your car is searched, they put a dog through your car. They de-humanise you completely and put you on the same level as the person behind bars. I immediately feel so anti-establishment, so anti-authority, I just really hate it. I hate it. Absolutely hate it. There’s nothing pleasant about visiting a prison. Nothing.

Northern European styles of prisons would be a bit revolutionary, but it would be too much to expect here, wouldn’t it? We have got a prison muster of 10,000. That’s a huge percentage of the population. And the stupid thing is, it DOES NOT WORK! When will people ever realise? Joe Bloggs out there thinks, ok, gotta be safe, so chuck them away and that’s fine. Get rid of them, so that we don’t have to see it. But you know, I could use my $100,000 that keeps my son in there, a lot more effectively. If I knew what I knew now, I mean $100,000. My son needs somewhere very structured and secure, but the thing is there are a lot of people in there, for a lot of different things, but they’re all far better off in rehab.

So my son worked in prison till release, that was all fine. He was good in himself, but the minute he got parole, there was no job. How can you expect someone who has been institutionalised for 8 and a half years, with - go to the toilet, eat this, do this, do that. Living in a cell. How can you expect someone to cope in the real world, after 8 and a half years? It’s scary for them, it’s too busy. They send them along to WINZ, and they’re treated all over again like they’re a bit of dirt, they’re horrible to them. And you’ve got to find a house, apartment or flat or whatever. And because there is that Sensible Sentencing Trust that has that website, you go and actually try to apply for a house, they immediately look up the website. They do that. And you can sort of understand why, but the thing is you don’t have a chance.

And my son actually had to come back to my house to live, which we sort of dealt with. I had my reservations about that, because of different issues, but I was only here for a week, then I was overseas for four weeks. But in that four weeks while I was away, he’d been out only four months, but he couldn’t cope, couldn’t get a job, couldn’t live anywhere else, using up money. Even though they’ve got all these safety plans, he didn’t activate his, he didn’t tell anybody how much he was feeling. I remember him ringing me while I was overseas, and said, ‘I’m not very good, mum’. I had no more money on my phone and he wasn’t seeing his brother very often, because he was working, so that’s when he went and re-offended. Not in a major way, but he still assaulted someone.

When I came home, I still couldn’t understand why I hadn’t heard from him, so when my other son picked me up from the airport, he said, ’do you know my brother’s back in prison?’ I didn’t know till I landed that he was back inside. There’s just not enough support for when someone comes out after that length of time. The longer you keep someone in prison, the harder it is for them to adjust to coming out. So now he’s been away for another five years on preventative detention and in that five years, do you know what’s happened for him? Not a thing. Nothing. Not a thing. He’s got into trouble, he’s been shifted once down the way, he’s broken his ankle, he’s broken his hand out of anger, just one thing after the other, there’s not one positive thing that I could say about the last five years.

And you and I as taxpayers, we’ve been paying $100,000 a year for that. And all I’ve seen is my son getting angrier and angrier and angrier. And I can’t think of one positive thing to say about the last five years, even to the point where he was assaulted by the guards. He was finally going to behave and going to get back out to the grounds and one of the other inmates, who was in there for the same thing, called him a name, (I thought that was the pot calling the kettle black), so my son hit him. So then all of a sudden he gets taken back into the wing. He obviously didn’t want to comply with what the guards were doing, so he stormed off and he got assaulted by the guards. If you’re handcuffed, you do not get two black eyes, a broken wrist that needed to be put in a cast, and abrasions over your face. You do not get that if you are restrained. They took restraint to an excessive level. I could tell you a lot about what I think about some of the prison guards.

So we put in an assault charge with the police, they went down to investigate, but of course there were no cameras around, was there? Nothing. What I’ve seen of the guards is that there are some very good guards, but there are also guards that are there for power, and they’ll grease the right way to get where they want to go. The others just think ‘stick your head down’. It’s not good. The guards will say something stupid to me, like, ’did you have a nice visit?’ I say, ’no, I didn’t, actually’. And another said, ‘that wasn’t a very long visit’. And I said, ’well, it’s not exactly a therapeutic environment, is it?’ And it’s not.

Prison is just a holding pen for people to be recruited into a gang, seriously. You can’t wear gang colours when you go in there, don’t talk to me about trying to buy shoes, or socks or anything like that. When my son first went in there, he was in a Mongrel Mob wing. I’ll never forget that first visit, ever. Ever. In Christchurch Men’s Prison. I walked into the visits room, and I was terrified, because there was a whole table of Mongrel Mob men with their facial mokos and tats and everything. And their women were all sitting at that table. And I remember sitting with my son, side by side, and all I remember him saying is, ’don’t cry, mum, please don’t cry’. It was like, ’oh my God’. It was awful. Just awful.

And it was in that same sort of period, we used to be able to buy lollies at a vending machine outside. So I took those lollies in to him. And those were the days when, if prisoners didn’t get a visitor, they still had to stay there, they were brought out regardless, whether or not a visitor was there. So they’re all waiting for their visitors to come. And another prisoner was sitting beside me, and my son was sitting opposite me, in a chair. And I handed the lollies to my son, and the other guy suddenly just went out with his arm, across me, to my son to say – give me the lollies. He was a Mob boy. Such a lot of intimidation. When people go in there, they do what they have to do to survive.

Nowadays, they don’t have family days, or barbeques or anything. When we used to go to Paparoa, they used to have a family day once every six months or a year. So we used to put in money for the prisoner to buy the meat pack. I gave enough for 3 of us visiting, plus my son. So I thought, right, I’ve given enough money for four meat packs, it should be enough for all of us. I got there, and I said to my son, ‘how come that’s all you’ve got? That’s only one’. And he just sort of fudged it off, but do you know what had happened to the other money for the meat packs? That had gone to the Black Power guy that was dictating things in the wing. So that’s what happens.

Joe Bloggs down the road doesn’t have any idea of that, well they don’t care anyway. Even my friends don’t know half of what goes on. You’ve got no idea, but this is how it is. Prisons are actually bullshit. When politicians get into power, someone has got to have the guts to say – this doesn’t work. Stop it. They’ve got so many people in there who are on remand, they’re spending most of their time on remand, and by the time they come up for sentencing, they’ve served their time.

It’s not only the personal, emotional cost, but also financial. I pay twice. I pay as a taxpayer, I pay for my son’s clothing, shoes, and buy-ups. Buy-ups are the extras, like to give a prisoner good shampoo, or deodorant. And extra food items, because meals are very strictly, ’this is what you have,’ so if you want coffee, extra food, or anything extra, you need money for buy-ups. Like, before Christmas, I think I put in about $100, because they want to be able to celebrate Christmas. They join forces and make cakes in the microwave, and all sorts of things. And ice-cream, they make it with powdered milk. They become quite inventive with what they can make.

The frustrations never, ever go away. And for me, as a mother, there’s no end in sight. When your son gets a preventative detention sentence, they might as well have leprosy, the way they’re treated by society. And I think, if you’re going to do that to people, why don’t you have a death sentence? Because what are you keeping them in there for - to rot?

My son’s been wanting to go to a course in prison, the adult sex offenders course. But because of punching that guy who called him names, he’s not allowed on the course this year, he was put back. And the prison is absolutely chocka with inmates. So he’s already been told by the parole board that he needs to get everything ready for two years’ time, by the time he next goes to the board. He really needed to be on that course this year. But because he misbehaved and punched that guy, they wouldn’t take him. And you can understand that, because it’s got to be a pretty tough course, and they’ve got to be very, very disciplined. My son’s own comment to me about that was that he doesn’t even know if he’d come out alive out of it.

You and I can go to bed and sleep, and feel that no-one’s going to hurt us, pretty much. Imagine if you’re in a double-bunked cell. I hate that. How would you like to be in a cell, with another person that you don’t know if, when you’re asleep, they’re going to punch the daylights out of you. Or do something to you. I’ve asked my son, I said, ‘’you know how you have that sort of fight or flight constant state of awareness, do you ever, ever feel relaxed, or not worried about someone hurting you, or what’s going on?’’ He said, ‘’no.’’ What does it do to your body when you’re in that constant state of readyness, for what might happen. You hear prisoners talk about getting the feeling in the wing, when something’s going down, when everything feels tense.

When my son went back in for this last five years, he was put on anti-depressants, because he was self-harming. He never used to be on anti-depressants, never used to self-harm. One of the drugs he was on, I actually rang up and complained. They probably hated me in the medical unit, me being a nurse ringing to complain. He hadn’t had his psych meds looked at for about two years when he was doing self-harming. And one of the drugs he was on actually makes people self-harm more.

I’d be seen as a ‘problem mother,’ probably. Because they don’t expect people to interfere, or ask questions. We don’t do mental health well, of course. Probably a good percentage of people in prison have got mental health issues. They would be probably the most manipulative, disturbed people in society, yet how come they get people looking after them, so-called guards, that have only had probably up to about 6 weeks’ training. It’s very complex. I once met someone in society, and asked what their job was, and they said they’re a Corrections officer. I said, ‘’ah, yeah, that’s a challenging role. Pretty complex.’’ He said, ‘’nah, most of them need to be done away with, and keep the other 10% so that I have got a job.’’ And I thought, if that’s your attitude… He wouldn’t be alone in that, either. I was gobsmacked, I thought – you asshole.

You see other regular visitors, but sometimes my son says, ‘’mum, do you mind getting such-and-such for someone, coz he’s got no-one to visit or to get him anything.’’ There was one guy I helped when he was inside. His family were out there, but only saw him when they felt like it. He certainly didn’t see his children or his mother while he was inside. Prison is incredibly isolating.

So, we’re still going through that journey. And as I said, I don’t really see any end in sight. This is a terrible thing to say, but often I wish that my son was dead instead.

My younger son has only just been to see his brother, for the first time in five years, before Christmas. He felt his brother had shat on him and let him down by going back. He didn’t realise how tough it was. But that Christmas visit, for my older son, was the best Christmas present he could have had, he said.

My younger son’s got a wife and children, he’s got his life and that word ‘’shame’’ is a huge thing. So I don’t know. I don’t see things changing unless someone in power makes a giant leap of faith and says it can’t go on, and we must change this. Because it doesn’t work. You can’t just lock people away without understanding that that doesn’t work. And instead of spending billions of dollars on prisons, they need to have a lot more rehabs, like Canada. In the South Island, we have Salisbury house in Christchurch, and Moana House for the drug & alcohol violent offenders in Dunedin. Two rehab centres, and I don’t know what there is in the North Island. It’s not enough. They should be spending more money on resources, to send people for rehab, and not even go near a prison. Because once they get in there, especially the younger ones, if they weren’t hooked up to a gang before, they certainly will soon. How else are they going to survive in there? People do what they have to do in there, to survive.

Welcome to my world. I’ve got good friends, but family doesn’t talk about it very often. They’d never say, ’let’s go and see your son and support him’. They don’t know half of it, they’d get a wake-up call if they did go in there. But you pick your friends. On a personal level, it certainly doesn’t make you rock out and think, like when I got divorced, ‘I’m going to find a new partner.’ Because how do you tell someone, ‘my son’s in jail for a sex offence’. Update: Since this interview took place, *Sarah writes that her incarcerated son is still serving the same sentence, nothing has changed. Tragically, her other son recently died of cancer while still in his 30s. *Name has been changed


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