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He’s the president of one of the most notorious outlaw motorcycle gangs and is deemed a security risk by prison bosses, but the family of Jim Thacker say he still has rights and keeping him in solitary confinement is inhumane. National Correspondent Tony Wall reports as part of his investigation into segregation in prisons.
Jim Thacker wakes in the mornings to the sound of a mass killer talking to himself.
Thacker, president of the Mongols Motorcycle Club, is being held in a high-security segregation unit at Auckland Prison in a cell next to the terrorist who slaughtered 51 people in the 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks.
“When he first got into that unit next to [the terrorist] he reckons he was bragging about all the people he’d killed. It was f…ing with him,” a relative says.
Despite his fearsome reputation, Thacker, who was deported from Australia in 2018 on character grounds, has never served jail time before and has yet to be convicted of the crimes he’s accused of.
He has been held in ‘directed segregation’ – where a prisoner is denied contact with other inmates and is usually kept in their cell for 23 hours a day – for eight months.
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Corrections bosses say Thacker is being held in isolation because he’s president of a gang involved in “significant criminal offending” which “recruits prospects to carry out violence on their behalf”.
They say Thacker has assaulted staff, threatened to kill staff and other prisoners, threatened to harm the family of other prisoners, smashed a cell window and set fires.
Neil Beales, Corrections’ chief custodial officer, says Thacker “is one of a small number of prisoners who we have assessed as posing a significant risk to the safety of other prisoners, staff and the public, and therefore we must manage him in a way that limits his ability to cause harm”.
“He has been managed under directed segregation since September 2020, due to his threats of violence towards others, ongoing non-compliance and the increased risk he poses both directly and via his influence of others.”
Thacker’s family say any misbehaviour has been the result of continual goading by guards, who provoke him into lashing out.
They say he is losing his mind and have begged Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis to help. Davis says he can’t intervene in an “operational matter”.
“His treatment while he has been in custody has been worse than how a person would treat their farm animals,” Thacker’s mother, Tamaku Thacker, wrote in a letter to Davis in January.
Thacker is one of thousands of prisoners being held in segregation each year.
Stuff revealed on Monday that the use of voluntary and directed segregation in New Zealand prisons has doubled over the past decade and directed segregation has jumped 78 per cent since Labour came to power in 2017.
The prison officers union says segregation is being used more often because of rising attacks on guards and inmates and gang influence, but critics say it’s inhumane, can lead to insanity and suicide, and is being misused as a form of punishment.
Other jurisdictions are grappling with the issue – New York recently adopted a law banning more than 15 days in solitary confinement and is set to become one of the first US states to fall in line with the UN’s Mandela Rules, which define extended solitary as torture.
Thacker was sentenced to 150 hours’ community service in Australia in 2014 for rioting after a fight between about 60 Bandidos members in the Broadbeach, Queensland restaurant precinct, and was deported in 2018 because of his gang links.
He established chapters of the Mongols in Bay of Plenty and Christchurch and was arrested in June last year amid a tit-for-tat war with rival gangs involving arsons and drive-by shootings.
A loaded .357 Magnum handgun was found in the car he was travelling in when he was arrested.
He was also charged with aggravated robbery of a rival gang member, allegedly taking his gang sweatshirt at knifepoint.
It’s understood the Crown is considering further charges.
Thacker was initially held in Waikeria Prison but was transferred to Auckland in October, before the riot at Waikeria in late December, which involved Mongols members.
“Some people [think] ‘you must have done something wrong to end up in custody, therefore you deserve everything you get’,” says Maria Pecotic, a lawyer who represents Thacker and other prisoners who’ve been held in segregation.
“But this is why we have the laws we do – you have to have a system where you treat people with common decency.
“People can best understand what it would be like to be in segregation if they go back to Covid lockdown level 4, and just imagine you’re not allowed to leave your basement.
“You might be able to see outside … if you’re lucky, but you’re isolated in that small confined spot. How long can you stay like that without it sending you completely insane?”
Thacker’s niece, Baylee Tonu’u-McGee, says her uncle shouldn’t be in segregation.
“Jim is not a sentenced prisoner, he is on remand and presumed innocent,” she says from her home in Brisbane.
“He’s saying his mental health is slipping, and he’s trying his hardest to hold on to it.
“The guards constantly provoke him. He has no reason to be awaiting his trial in maximum security being treated like an animal.”
In her letter to Davis, Tamaku Thacker, said that her son was on 23-hour lockdown and never saw the sun.
“He cannot wash his hair or shave. He cannot socialise with anyone at all. He is not allowed to make regular phone calls to his family,” she wrote.
“He can do no courses as his security rating means he is not authorised for these. It is heartbreaking to see my son in this facility.
MARK TAYLOR / STUFF
Rachel Edge says her son, Travis, did four months in solitary confinement at Auckland South Corrections Facility.
“As a civilised country, prisoners are entitled to basic human rights, like sunshine, hygienic environments and the ability to see family members and cuddle and hug them. Prisoners are entitled to exercise and social interaction. Yet my son is not receiving even the basic of needs.”
She said in her letter that when she visited Thacker, no contact was allowed, and he was handcuffed. Guards constantly taunted and provoked him, she said.
“Prisons are not meant to send people crazy and I fear this is exactly what the prison is doing to my son. This is a mother’s plea to you to please help my son.”
Davis’ office wrote back saying the minister “cannot personally intervene in operational matters” so had referred the letter to Corrections’ national office “for investigation and response”.
A spokesman for Davis told Stuff segregation could be used when appropriate for any prisoner, either sentenced or on remand.
“The safety and security of individuals in prison is a top priority for Corrections, and being on remand does not mean that an individual does not pose a potential risk to others,” he said.
“The Minister expects Corrections to use segregation when no other option is available … and to manage these individuals in accordance with the law.”
Beales, the chief custodial officer, says segregation is reviewed within 14 days and continued segregation requires sign-off from the office of the regional commissioner and when necessary, a visiting judge.
Segregated prisoners continue to receive minimum entitlements under the Corrections Act and have regular contact with staff, including health services staff.
Gangs are a major problem in prisons, Beales says, with latest numbers showing over 35 per cent of inmates having a gang affiliation.
“There is extensive evidence … that gang-affiliated prisoners have higher levels of involvement in prison violence,” Beales says. “Establishing dominance within the prison environment is an important explanation – and violence is a common strategy to that end.”
Corrections has a five-year gang strategy that aims to disrupt the efforts of gang members to organise and commit crime from within prisons and reduce re-offending rates, he says.
Beales says prisoners have “multiple avenues” to make complaints, but he is not aware of Thacker making any official complaints against staff.
The Australian-based mother of another Mongols MC member put straight into segregation after his arrest says over-use of the practice in New Zealand is “barbaric”.
Her son, whose name is suppressed, already has mental health issues, she says, and should not be held in solitary confinement.
“We just think it’s an absolute rock show over there, we can’t believe it,” she said. “To arrest someone and put them into isolation straight off the bat, off what the police have said, is unheard of.”