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August 20, 2018 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Moral Panic, a “Juke-box Killer”… and Did Someone Say “Prison Reformation”?

The story of New Zealand teenager Albert Black has it all: love triangles, jukeboxes, a tragic demise, a secret pregnancy, an aesthetically-pleasing setting fit with cool clothing and the “50s diner” look. Like the visual appeal of Riverdale but with, you know, substance.
In Auckland in 1955, a 19-year-old labourer from Northern Ireland named Albert “Paddy” Black came to find himself in an ongoing feud with one Alan Jacques. Jacques too was nineteen and an immigrant to New Zealand. Clearly having a good grip on the concept of personal branding, Jacques had cultivated the pseudonym “Johnny McBride” — who was a character in American Crime Novelist Micky Spillane’s book The Long Wait, and embodied the tough and violent reputation Jaques was after. This feud ended in July of 1955 when, after the provocation of Jaques, Black stabbed him in the neck, near the jukebox at a dimly-lit Queen Street milk-bar known as Ye Olde Barn.
The series of events is so obviously a “film noir” movie in the making, it’s easy to forget that they really happened. Albert Black went on to be the last youth hanged here in New Zealand, and his case helped spur the New Zealand prison reformation that would later take place.
Last week, the Whangārei Girl’s High School production of Peter Larsen’s original play Albert Black opened. And just last month, acclaimed Kiwi novelist Dame Fiona Kidman published her own creative non-fiction adaption of the tale. The story of Black and Jacques is one that has continued to resurface over the 63 years since shit went down. And looking at the story in relation to the current status quo of Correction Systems — its themes feel more relevant than ever.
It’s easy to get caught up in the click-bait style sensationalism of Black’s case. But as both authors have discussed, it’s not the “teddy boy” inspired outfits and milkshake-sipping characters that drew them in. It was the injustice and the empathy they felt towards these barely-adult social outcasts.
Just prior to the opening of the play’s latest run, stories were surfacing of Californian prisoners fighting fires for $1/hour alongside salaried firefighters: a job the inmates are ineligible to apply for on their release. Among this team of detained volunteers are at least 58 youth offenders.
Like Black and Jacques, it’s statistically likely that many of these offenders hail from low socio-economic backgrounds and marginalised communities. Capital punishment may have gone out of favour in most countries, but youth sentencing remains the cherry on top of a crapload of systematic shortcomings. Here in New Zealand, despite only making up about 21% of the population, a 2017 report from the Ministry of Justice reveals that Māori make up 64% of all youth convictions. Despite the number of youth offenders decreasing, the proportion of these offenders that are Māori is only rising. America’s stats are just as bad, with the juvenile detention rates of Hispanic, Native American, African-American and other minorities each at least double the number of white youths being detained.
To write Black off as a “juvenile delinquent” (like many social commentators of his time), or conclude he was a bad apple, rotten egg, whatever your idiom of preference, is to ignore all the factors that lead Black to have his Tarantino-esque milk-bar moment. And I won’t spoil the plot-line for you, but hardship, “othering”, and racism all come into play.
Maybe getting a few As in media studies has given me the unfounded confidence to play armchair sociologist. But with so much up in the air right now — as Mama Cindy and Labour decide on a back-up plan after scrapping Nationals proposal for a super-prison — the reemergence of Albert Black’s story seems pretty freaking timely. We’re overdue for once again stepping back and taking a good hard look at our corrections system… and then perhaps stepping back even further to look at the problems that lie under that.
Study after study links poverty, unemployment, and marginalised communities to higher rates of incarceration. And incarceration to higher rates of poverty, unemployment and, you guessed it, marginalisation. All the while, providing material for the more prejudiced of our population to weave harmful stereotypes, and propel the adversity of the disproportionately affected further into the cultural peripheral (Mike Hosking, I’m looking at you).
“No one likes prisons … but the reality is for the prison muster it’s required,” Simon Bridges told Radio One back in May, after hearing that the plans for the $1Billion corrections facility had been canned. “What [Labour] is going to do is soften up the bail,” Bridges continued, “Look, I take the perhaps old fashioned view that [this] makes communities less safe.”
Meanwhile in Finland, the incarceration levels have dropped by two-thirds since the 1960s, with reports showing no impact on crime trends. And of those detained, about one third go to “Open Prisons”, private rehabilitating communities that look far more like Edward Scissorhands suburbia than they do Orange is the New Black lockup. Simon, if Albert’s case has taught us anything, when it comes to correctional systems and reducing crime rates; “old fashioned” might not be the way to go.


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