In this extract from her book What a Ride!, Major Judith Bennett shares stories of working with women behind the wire. From tragic tales of women whose life in prison was better than life on the outside, to one very famous inmate …
A formidable, bleak, stone wall confronted Berys Glendinning and me, seemingly defying us to enter and determined to keep prisoners in and visitors out. During one of his visits to New Zealand, General William Booth was reputed to have declared that of all the places he had seen in his travels, Mt Eden Prison was the gloomiest.
We stepped through the door, which clanged shut loudly behind us. The proverbial bunch of keys jangled ominously in the prison offi cer’s hand. Too late to change my mind! Through another door, and a dozen or so pairs of eyes stared—or glared—at us. The girls were seated at tables working, weighing tobacco and sealing it in plastic bags.
‘Tobacco rations for all the prisoners here at Mt Eden,’ explained one of the girls. The next thing I knew, I was offering to help them weigh the tobacco ration and stuff it in a bag.
During the next weeks and months, as Berys and I visited regularly, the girls started to trust me more and share something of their lives.
Anika* was one of our prison friends. Over the months, she’d shared something of her story. She came from an uncaring, unloving, unprincipled family. Life was hard and horrible. Growing up in such a hostile environment, a sensitive Anika would have become almost permanently fearful and hardened by her continual ill-treatment.
No wonder she felt safe in prison. No wonder as soon as she was released, she committed another crime, so she could know this safety again. No wonder she viewed the prison offi cers as caring friends. No wonder she had a baby— someone to love and a child to love her in return. While this mum was in and out of prison, her daughter was in and out of various family homes. On one occasion when Anika was released from prison, she couldn’t find a place for her and little Aria* to live. I heard they were living in an old shed at the back of the Onehunga rubbish dump. We found Anika and Aria living in a small, dark, damp shed—the smell from the tip was almost unbearable.
Both mother and child were so pleased to see us and invited us into their little shack. What an astonishing difference from the stinking garbage outside. Anika had the place clean and tidy, mats to sit on, an old bed in the corner complete with colourful crocheted blanket, a wooden box in which to store their meagre possessions, a couple of black plastic bags for their clothes, and a small rickety table holding a few plates and utensils. Here at the town rubbish tip was a tiny piece of home to shelter mother and daughter.
Early one morning, the telephone echoed loudly through our home. I grabbed the telephone and all I could hear was deep, heart-wrenching crying.
In answer to my ‘Who’s there?’, an almost indecipherable voice cried, ‘It’s me. Anika. Please come quickly, he’s killing our baby!’
As I zoomed down the southern motorway at 3:20am, I recalled the changes that had happened for Anika in the past year. She had a new partner, Tane*, who seemed a decent guy. Anika had recently given birth to a baby girl. A small flat had become available for the little family, who were trying to make ends meet and give their children a stability they’d never experienced. ‘Killing our baby?’ What on earth was happening?
The house was ablaze with light, front door wide open. Fiveyear- old Aria was dazedly wandering around the front yard, crying. Anika was sitting on the low fence. As I stepped out of the car, they both ran toward me. ‘Get the baby! Quick, stop him! He’s gonna kill her!’ Anika blurted out. I followed the sound of a distressed cry to the bedroom and discovered an astonishing sight: Tane sitting on the bed gently rocking his baby daughter in his arms, crying, ‘Why do I do it?’ As I stood, quietly moved by this tender scene, Tane raised his agonised face and cried again, ‘Why do I do it, Judith? Why? I love my baby! Help me, please help me!’
Between pain-filled sobs, Tane confessed he’d been sorely tempted to throw his baby daughter hard against the wall to finish her life. Utter desperation fuelled by alcohol is truly toxic. Tane didn’t want another generation to be caught in this cruel cycle. I’d arrived in the nick of time.
Judith kept in contact with the family, and on two occasions took the baby into her care—with the help of her corps family—so the family could work through troubles. *Names have been changed.
The bombing of the Greenpeace protest ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour on Wednesday, 10 July 1985 shocked our nation. Here was a plot of intrigue, mystery and murder right on our front doorstep. Early next morning the media were all over the appalling news—11:45pm the previous night, saboteurs had sunk the Rainbow Warrior. Within a short time, two rench agents were arrested.
A few days later, as I walked into one of the prison rooms for a regular visit, I couldn’t help but notice a petite blonde female in her mid-30s, who I recognised from the television news. I’d hardly said hello when she spoke words I’ve never forgotten: ‘I know The Salvation Army! I see The Salvation Army in my country—it does very good work with the homeless and poor in Paris.
Over the next couple of months, [the French Secret Service agent] Dominique Prieur and I had many friendly conversations. We never discussed the reason for her being in prison—the
media provided that information. Dominique was moved to a secure unit, and one day I got a call from the prison manager asking if I would visit Dominique as her chaplain. ‘Dominique has asked for you as she appreciates your company and conversation … also because you don’t make her say her prayers!’
The manager explained to me that because of high security the only visitors Dominique could have were her lawyer, her chaplain, and prison or court officials. I never cease to be amazed at the unimaginable opportunities in the service of Jesus that come when one says ‘yes’ to God’s call.
Dominique had a problem: she needed a haircut. But the prison manager could hardly take a high security prisoner to the local hair salon. ‘Please, Judith, can you help us?’ asked the manager. The Salvation Army is generally good at helping meet people’s needs in the name of Jesus, but this was a most unusual request.
‘Has the Army a good hairdresser?’ We did! It was like Congress Hall Corps was in silent partnership with the prison: praying for the prison ministry, providing babysitters, pavlovas and presents for prisoners at Christmas … and now a hairdresser.
A few weeks prior to her trial, Dominique told me her husband Joel was coming to New Zealand. ‘Has The Salvation Army anywhere he can stay where he won’t be pestered by the
media?’ And so The Salvation Army Railton Hotel in Auckland became Joel Prieur’s refuge for the duration of his wife’s trial.
On Sunday evening, at David’s invitation, Joel went with him to the street meeting that Auckland Congress Hall band held weekly in Queen Street. Afterwards, he followed the band march back to Congress Hall and attended the meeting. Later, Joel told us how much the service meant to him.
Dominique was transferred to Christchurch Women’s Prison, where I visited her twice. The two agents were eventually transferred to French custody on Hao Island in French Polynesia. Dominique kept in touch with me by cards and letters sent from Hao Island and France. The last card she sent from Paris at Christmas in 1988 announced the birth of their first child.
Following their court trial, girls were sent either to Arohata in Wellington or Paparoa in Christchurch to complete their sentence. Sometimes they’d write and tell me how they were doing. I have a thick file of those letters, fondly remembering the girls who wrote them and often wondering where they are today, 30 years on.
Snippets from a few letters remind me of their honesty and simple faith:
‘Dear Mr and Mrs Bennett … I have been praying to God ’cause I know it will please you. I also pray for yous, he is with me and also yous constantly. I have put all my faith in him and
one day hope to go to Heaven. See you there.’
A well-educated girl from a good family, sadly became involved with a drug syndicate. She wrote me an interesting seven-page letter from Christchurch women’s prison explaining
her circumstances and how she was coping. I’m humbled by her final paragraph:
‘Thank you for the comfort that you brought me in Mt Eden. I was always impressed with the way that you came in and helped us with our work while you talked with us—not to us.
You certainly helped me to feel that I could come through this while retaining my sense of self-worth.’
Annie was arrested on a charge of murder. It was a tragic case and Annie was absolutely distressed and heartbroken, haunted by what she’d done in a moment of terrible frustration, anger and hopelessness. She was on remand for some time while her case was prepared.
She always attended chapel services, sang the songs and asked questions: ‘Who was God anyway? Did he really care about her? Could we get her a Bible?’ Her search for God and
forgiveness led her to understand something of Jesus, his amazing grace and unfailing love.
Many people at Congress Hall Corps prayed for Annie. The morning of the sentencing, I was allowed down into Annie’s cell below the High Court. She was terrified. All I could do was
hold her, cry with her and pray. Then it was time for her to go up and receive her sentence. It was all over in 20 minutes.
Afterwards, the lawyer commented to Annie and me on her surprise two-year term: ‘It’s one of the most lenient sentences I’ve heard—someone was praying for you.’ Annie replied: ‘The
Salvation Army church were all praying for me!’
The next day, I visited Annie to say farewell ahead of her scheduled transfer to Christchurch the following day. Annie looked different. Peaceful. Radiant. ‘I’ve done it,’ she exclaimed.
‘I gave my life to Jesus!’
Annie’s transformation by Jesus was life-changing. She witnessed to her mum, the prison officers, the girls. She was a joy to behold. God is faithful and answers prayer, as Annie discovered. Her first letter was full of thanks to God:
‘First of all, everything’s worked wonders! Instead of being put in Maximum I went straight to Minimum. I got a real shock but it’s great! … The Lord has worked wonders and in every direction I look, he’s smoothed the path for me. The Lord’s done so much, that each night my prayers are longer, as every day I’ve always got something to thank him for … I considered myself a ‘no-hoper’ until I met The Salvation Army. I’m so thankful for each and every person who has prayed for me. God bless you all.’