While driving around the South Pacific island of Rarotonga one day back in February, I happened upon the main entrance to the island’s prison located just off of the narrow inner-circle road. At the entrance to the prison, a small sign advertised a tourist gift shop and I decided to go in for a look around. Often when we visit places, such as the peaceful island of Rarotonga, we tend not to think about the social issues that may lurk beneath the surface. Because of the close relationship that the Cook Islands has with New Zealand, and the fact that Cook Islanders are New Zealand citizens by birth, I assumed that convicted criminals in the Cook Islands were probably shipped off to serve their sentences in the New Zealand prison system. The truth is that I never even thought about this topic in regards to the Cook Islands, so I was naturally interested in this tiny prison on a tiny island in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean.
Since 1965 the Cook Islands have been an independent nation in free association with New Zealand, and in many ways the island of Rarotonga feels similar to New Zealand, but there are also many differences – some of these are obvious and others are hidden. The Cooks have their own elected Prime Minister, they create their own laws, they have their own courts, their own department of corrections, and their own prison system. Anyone born in the Cook Islands has a right to reside in New Zealand or even Australia if they wish, and there are sizeable populations of Cook Islanders in both of these places.
Inside the prison’s gift shop were 6 or 7 hand-carved ukuleles for sale, they appeared to be of reasonably high quality and made of native hardwoods. The prison guard on duty that day informed me that the ukuleles are made by prisoners currently serving sentences for crimes committed in the Cook Islands. The guard (we will call him Guard #1), a friendly and talkative older Rarotongan man, told me that he used to live in New Zealand for a number of years in the past. Thirteen years ago he came back to Rarotonga for what was supposed to be a short holiday, but he ended up never leaving again. He explained to me how many of his fellow Cook Islanders are currently overseas, many of them working low paid factory jobs, and struggling to pay off mortgages and feed their families. According to Guard #1, most, if not all, of these overseas-based Cook Islanders are entitled to family land in the islands where they could essentially live for free and grow much of their own food. Some Cook Islanders grow tired of living and working in expensive, fast-paced foreign lands and understandably make the decision to return to the islands, while others may never come back.
I asked Guard #1 if I could ask him some questions about the prison, and the rehabilitation programme so I could write a story about it. He suggested that I wait for the prison supervisor to come back from his lunch break, because, he said, “the ‘Big Boss’ can tell you more than I can”. I had some spare time so I sat and chatted with Guard #1 while I waited for the supervisor to arrive back at the prison. Even though I didn’t ask Guard #1 that many specific questions, he shared a lot of information about the prison with me on his own accord. I pulled out my voice recorder and recorded him as he talked about his views, and his experiences as a prison guard for the better part of an hour.
According to Guard #1, the prison on Rarotonga is the only prison in the Cook Islands, and criminals from any of the other 14 islands are sent here to serve their sentences. The prison population is comprised of 33 male inmates and 2 female inmates, most of which are under the age of 30, while “only a few” are over 40 years old. A small number of prisoners are “lifers”, serving life sentences for especially violent crimes such as murder- something that is fairly rare in the Cook Islands. He went on to tell me that many of the prisoners are New Zealand born Cook Islanders, but there is also a growing population of foreign nationals in the prison system including Indonesians, Chinese, and Filipinos.
The prison’s main feature is its rehabilitation programme, where prisoners learn to be plumbers, builders, electricians, handicraft makers, or are trained in other skills that will allow them to contribute something to society when they are finished serving their sentences. Some of the more trusted prisoners are actually allowed out during the day on work release programmes, and even the ones that aren’t allowed off of the prison grounds on work release are permitted to roam free on the prison grounds during the day. Prisoners are also allowed to go home to be with their families on holidays such as Christmas day. As the prison lacks any sort of substantial security fence or gates, several prisoners have simply walked off the prison grounds in the past. They do this mostly for the purposes of visiting girlfriends, or to eat at a favourite restaurant, but they are always quickly located and returned to the prison by the police when this happens. Rarotonga is a small island.
Guard #1 also shared some of his personal concerns with me in regards to an increase in criminal activities due to the changes that are currently taking place in the islands. “Many Cook Islanders are very worried about gangs from New Zealand coming here”, he said. “They are writing in to the local newspaper about it all the time.” The fears of local Cook Island citizens apparently aren’t unwarranted, and Guard #1 shared a story with me from many years ago when the first Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, Albert Henry, publicly turned away a group of Mongrel Mob members of Cook Island descent at the main international airport in Rarotonga. The Prime Minister had been tipped off that this group was coming from New Zealand with intentions to establish Cook Islands chapter of the gang. The act of denying them entry at the border was significant because as Cook Island citizens, they should have been given the right to enter and remain in the Cook Islands indefinitely, even if they are known gang affiliates or convicted criminals. Prime Minister Henry’s goal was to send a clear message to other gang members or criminals who may have been considering relocation to the islands: The Cook Islands are not the place to conduct criminal activities.
“35 inmates, way too many for a small island” said Guard #1 as he plucked the strings of a ukulele that he kept by his desk. This particular ukulele looked like a factory second, and appeared to be quite old. “This one isn’t for sale” he told me several times during our conversation. He didn’t explain why, but it was obvious that this ukulele held some sort of sentimental value to him. He began telling me about all of the prisoners that he has seen come and go throughout the years. “Some of them go and do good, but it is sad that others end up coming back to us”. Guard #1 clearly takes an interest in the wellbeing of prisoners even after they leave the prison system, and he talked about how he takes it upon himself to check up on them regularly as they transition from incarceration to civilian life.
Guard #1 also voiced his concerns about the increasing numbers of foreign nationals that are ending up in the Cook Islands’ prison system. “All of the prisoners here are Christians right now, there are one or two atheists, but we have church services right here on the prison grounds”, he said before adding “there aren’t any Muslim inmates, but there will be soon.” Many locals are apparently concerned about the future of their islands and indigenous culture, and the possibility of eventually being outnumbered by foreigners that are settle in the islands. The Cook Islands is surprisingly multicultural, and there is a growing population of foreign nationals who have acquired work visas or permanent resident status, primarily in Rarotonga.
Just then a prison ute pulled up outside. The “Big Boss” walked in and muttered a couple of things to Guard #1, and then he glanced at me with suspicion. Guard #1 introduced me and told boss man that I was interested in learning more about the prison. I stood up to shake the supervisor’s hand, but it was clear from his body language that I wasn’t welcome. I explained that I wanted to know more about the prisoner rehabilitation programme, and the ukuleles and other crafts that the prisoners make. “I think it’s a great initiative, and I would like to shoot some photos if you are ok with it” I said. “I’m not interested, and all of the information is on our website” he replied before adding, “you cannot just visit our prison any time you like to take pictures. So you need to leave now.” The situation got awkward very quickly. Perhaps he forgot that there is a sign out front actually directing tourists to visit the prison gift shop?
I can only assume that Big Boss believed that I was, for some reason, interested in making the islands look bad in some way. I genuinely meant no harm, and I actually view the prison’s method of rehabilitating criminals through the trades, handicrafts, and music as something that is empowering and hopeful. Perhaps something similar could be adapted to help prisoners in other Pacific Island nations? Either way, I felt quite unwelcome at this point, and quickly headed out of the building without even saying goodbye to Guard #1. I could hear the supervisor slam his office door closed as I went down the steps towards the car. Perhaps the Big Boss thought that I had some sort of interest in painting him, his prison, and the islands in a bad light by showcasing some sort of dark underbelly that exists in the Cook Islands’ society, something that well-healed foreign tourists would be completely unaware of while blissfully enjoying their holidays. His overall behaviour gave me the impression that he was simply trying to avoid talking about certain topics related to the prison. Little did he know, Guard #1 had already talked at length about these things while he was at lunch.
I didn’t buy any of the ukuleles.