‘They created monsters’: How New Zealand’s brutal welfare system produced criminals

Rangi Wickliffe was one of many Māori children repeatedly abused in welfare institutions including the notorious Lake Alice psychiatric hospital

Rangi Wickliffe’s body is a map and a history of New Zealand’s welfare and prison institutions, where the 60-year-old has spent about 45 years of his life.

There are the scars the length of his inner left forearm that he slashed up with a razor blade when he was 16. That was in D Block in Paremoremo prison, the harshest wing in New Zealand’s maximum security prison.

“There’s about nine or 10 cuts. I missed the tendons. I ended up with 177 stitches. When I came to they were plaster-casting it. I’d passed out. They took me back to the cell, ‘clean your shit up Wickliffe, here’s a bucket and mop. You’re on charges,’” Wickliffe recalls.

Wickliffe recently gave evidence on the notorious psychiatric hospital Lake Alice at the royal commission into abuse in care. At the conclusion, chairperson Coral Shaw choked up with emotion as she thanked him. Between 1972 and 1978 it is estimated that about 300 children went through the unit.

Wickliffe’s scars are overlaid with a “glove” of ink that covers the entire forearm and most of his hand, a status symbol of his time in D Block. His right arm lists D Block and also Mt Eden, the Victorian era prison in Auckland where Wickliffe landed as a 14-year-old after going on a road trip in a stolen car with mates who’d escaped a welfare home.

One of his fingers has “Kohitere” tattooed on the inside, a boys welfare home, while another is inked with “Waikeria”, a youth borstal.

Rangi Wickliffe’s ‘Fuck justice’ tattoo.
Rangi Wickliffe’s ‘Fuck justice’ tattoo, which he added to his leg with boot polish. Photograph: Aaron Smale/The Guardian

Then there’s the one on the back of his neck. It has the outline of watchtowers and a noose. It’s a memorial to the 11 guys who killed themselves while he was in D Block.

But the one that goes beyond the documentary record, verging on the philosophical, is on the side of his shin. It simply says, “Fuck Justice.”

Wickliffe was in his early 20s when he etched that one. He’d figured out the word justice was loaded with hypocrisy. He was punished for his crimes, mostly burglaries. But no one has ever been convicted for the crimes committed against him when he was a child, including rape.

“I was in my 20s. I tried to tell them my history about abuse, but they weren’t interested. Screws, judges, lawyers, no one gave a shit.”

‘They created monsters like me’

When he was four his grandmother found he’d been physically abused by an extended family member. She took him into her care but struggled to manage him and asked Social Welfare for help. Instead of help, he was made a ward of the state and over the next 10 years in the state’s custody he was repeatedly sexually, physically and psychologically abused. He would repeatedly run away, only to be sent to a worse institution.

His criminal record started at the age of six when he broke into a house and stole an apple and some loose change.

“I was jumping through windows for survival and to get away from the abuse.”

At the age of 10 he was admitted to the adolescent unit at Lake Alice, an institution for criminally insane adults. Of all the institutions he went through, he regards Lake Alice as the most terrifying and damaging long-term.

He describes how it was there that he underwent punishment through electric shocks and was repeatedly raped by criminally insane adult patients and one of the staff. On one occasion he says he was given electric shocks for not eating his vegetables. On another it was for getting bad marks in maths. He says he witnessed another boy getting electric shocks on his genitals. Like the welfare homes, the majority of the children at the hospital were Māori boys. The high numbers of Māori in the welfare system has parallels with the Stolen Generations in Australia and the residential schools in North America.

The faces he saw in the welfare homes and Lake Alice were the same faces he’d see when he started going into adult prisons. Compared to what they’d been through in the welfare system, prison was familiar but also easier.

“After being in solitary confinement in Lake Alice, how do you think I fitted in. I fitted in perfectly. They weren’t sodomising and electrocuting me. I’m used to solitary confinement.”

New Zealand’s prisons are now filled with several generations of men who went through the same system that was meant to rescue them but taught them violence.

“The ones coming through are worse. They created monsters like me. Then you’ve got the next generation. We’re now on to the third or fourth generation. They’re extremely violent and that’s no surprise. It justifies building more prisons, it also justifies arming the police, it also justifies shooting Māori as being the major offenders of those kinds of offences.”

He says the criminal justice system, including judges and the psychiatrists that inform their decisions, only see the violent adult and not the damaged, traumatised child that was created by other state agencies.

Rangi Wickliffe’s arm, which shows tattoos memorialising his time in Paremoremo prison’s D Block, the harshest wing of the maximum security prison, and Mt Eden, a Victorian era prison in Auckland.
Rangi Wickliffe’s arm, which shows tattoos memorialising his time in Paremoremo prison’s D Block, the harshest wing of the maximum security prison, and Mt Eden, a Victorian era prison in Auckland. Photograph: Aaron Smale/The Guardian

“I’ve had forensic psychologists, forensic psychiatrists say all sorts of things about me, none of them knowing about my past or that I’d been to Lake Alice.

“Every psychological report that has been written on me points out my bad behaviour. But there’s nothing on there about what the state has done to me. And my family.”

It wasn’t just reports from official sources but the stigma of Lake Alice that has hung over the lives of survivors. That stigma has closed doors to employment despite most of the children in the adolescent unit having no diagnosed mental illness.

Civil litigation in the late 1990s and early 2000s led to a payout totalling around $13m, which amounted to around $100,000 for each victim. However, the first group of claimants had legal fees deducted which reduced it to around $50,000.

Wickliffe has managed to stay out of prison for the past five years, one of his longest periods on the outside, which he puts down to the support of his partner, Dawn. She was the mother of his first child but they only reunited after his last prison sentence after decades apart.

Despite leaving the criminal justice system behind, his views on it haven’t changed since he added the tattoo on his leg with boot polish.

“Fuck justice. I’ve been fighting for justice for how long now. Everyone can say that [tattoo] came back and bit you in the arse. No, not at all. I knew that from the beginning.”

  • The Lake, a podcast about the children of Lake Alice, is out now on all podcast platforms. It was supported by NZ on Air. Subscribe at www.stuff.co.nz/thelake

Aaron Smale in Wellington

The GuardianTramp

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