Hawke’s Bay Prison Dentist – Rex Bartlett

Jim Newbigin: [Background audience noise] Good evening. It’s 8th August [2017]. We’re recording Mr Rex Bartlett, who’s [the] dentistry man at Mangaroa Prison for the last twenty-five years.

Joyce Barry: Good evening everyone. Thank you for coming. We have got a wonderful speaker here tonight. Rex … lovely history; Hawke’s Bay born, educated at the Otago Dental School, then in practice over fifty-two years, retired in the last nine years. He has been concentrating on dentures, so I won’t ask for a show of hands, but [chuckles] anyway, it used to be a massive deal, didn’t it, Rex? And of course now it’s become quite a specialist one. So a wonderful history, but during that time he spent a great portion of it also working with the prison. And I think the job that you do there is fantastic; and a lot of people are involved in the prison from the reading programmes and that; but I just thought dentistry is certainly a different aspect. So, over to you, Rex.


Thank you, Joyce, for your introduction. It’s a real pleasure to be here, and to be a part of this Landmarks History Talks; I’m really looking forward to being a part of this. I’m just wondering what a dentist’s recollections of twenty-five years of service at the Hawke’s Bay Prison would contribute towards the historical records of the Hastings community. I thought to myself, ‘What would happen in two hundred years’ time, for instance, if somebody turned on the recording and thought to themselves, ”Goodness! What’s this business about prisons?’ [Chuckles] ‘We don’t even have prisons because we’ve genetically modified the behaviour.’’ [Laughter] So I thought that … you know, that might give you an idea of how I feel.

I’ve given this talk to a few other groups here, so I see one or two who’ve listened to me before; just please don’t throw in the punchline if you’ve heard the story before. [Chuckles]

The title of my speech is, ‘Reflection on Twenty-five Years of Service as Dentist at the Hawke’s Bay Prison.’ Now, twenty-five years is a long time. Somebody said to me once, “You must have enjoyed it, Rex.” Well, by and large I did. Not so much for the dentistry but because of the change of scenery; I used to go up there one day a week, so to get out of your surgery and go up there was like a holiday in the middle of the week. There was also some very interesting people there, and tonight I’m going to talk about what I think about them, and about some of the systems that go on out there.

Talking about the dentistry to start with, I call it ‘coal-face dentistry’ because basically most of the mouths out there are neglected. Dentistry is not a high priority for prisoners; they’d rather be on the booze or the drugs, or they just can’t afford to go to the dentist. So most of it was pulling rather than filling to start with, although things did improve in later years. You sometimes wonder how much you are appreciated for what you do out there, especially as far as the nicknames were concerned. The Mongrel Mob for instance call me ‘Number One’. I said to them once, “Why do you call me ‘Number One?’ And they said to me, “Oh, you’re the Number One toughest man in the prison, Rex. We’ll be Number Two.” Some of the bullying ones call me ‘Butcher Bartlett’, but I managed to stay there for twenty-five years. But the nickname that I liked most of all was ‘Tyrannosaurus Rex’, [laughter] after that notorious dinosaur. I’m sure my grandkids would agree with that, because one of my grandkids said to me one day when I was trying to get some information about computers … and you know what it’s like when you get a bit older and you can’t keep up with it all … she said to me, “You know, Grandpa, you’re a bit of an old dinosaur when it comes to computers.” So I thought, you know, perhaps I was named appropriately.

[Shows slides throughout]

Anyway, I did find out how much I was appreciated because with due Māori ceremony they presented me with this patu, made out of kauri, hand-carved; not terribly-well finished because they haven’t got the equipment and the varnishes and the sandpapers to do it. But I thought it was very nice. This is me on the top of the patu there – I’m the chief. This is my tīpuna and this here is my mana. And I think it’s very nice and I very much appreciated it, and if some of you’d like to look at it, you’re quite welcome – I’ll pass it round; long as they don’t run away with it.

What kind of a place is a prison? Well, of course there are some pleasant guys there – there are some very personable guys there; but there are also some very [coughing] unpleasant people. Makes life a bit difficult at times. What I think is most significant about the prison is that it’s a fairly tough place, and if you’re physically a smaller person then you’re definitely at a disadvantage, because the place is full of bullies. You’ve got to realise that forty-three percent of all crimes that result in criminal incarceration are violence-based. So you can understand that that’s the kind of culture you’ll get there – a culture of violence. What really bothers me about the violence is what I call the perpetuation of the warrior culture. And this isn’t just restricted to prisons, it’s also a New Zealand psyche; and that is, you know, you settle the argument with your fists first and you ask questions after. I think it’s time, you know, we got a little bit more leadership in New Zealand in respect of this attitude. It’s not good.

Nigel Latta: now you all know Nigel Latta – he’s very prominent on TV at the moment with a programme called ‘Under the Darklands’, or something about darklands; [Beyond the Darklands] I heard Nigel speak at a Dental conference in Blenheim a few years ago, and he said he could count on one hand the number of truly evil people he’d met in his life. I thought it was a fairly staggering statement, but I think what he was trying to say was that everybody has some kind of redeeming feature. Everybody. I think it’s just a little bit hard to find some of these redeeming features sometimes.

As for myself, out there, I would have to say also that on one hand I could also count the number of times that I might’ve felt intimidated. Mostly I suppose, the odd occasion that I might’ve felt intimidated was probably some macho warrior type who was dead scared of me actually; but that was his attitude towards me. I think you have to develop an ability to get alongside these guys; they’re not all unpleasant because they put their name on the list to go to the dentist. So you’ve got something to offer them; you’re not the enemy; you’re not the guards. So from that point of view it’s a little bit easier than some of them, but you have to learn to defuse the situation, and for me, I think I had one great advantage, and that was my background. I come from Northern Hawke’s Bay. I was born in Wairoa, I spent my childhood in a place called Nuhaka, and people might know where that is – it’s a small Māori village on the intersection going to Mahia off the main road. My parents ran a transport business there. We had small Bedford trucks in those days, probably about a dozen, and we employed Māori drivers. And so it was a Māori community, and we were very much a part of it.

After I grew up … I went to boarding school and then I went off to university … and then I was attracted back to Wairoa because that was where I was born; and that was my first job, as a dentist in Wairoa. I was part of the community there, but I also did an awful lot of rugby refereeing, and so because of refereeing … you know, you get around a bit and you get into communities, and I’ve refereed rugby all the way from Dannevirke all the way up to East Cape. And so I get to know a lot of people; I get to know a lot of people in my job. Day to day we know thousands of people, and we develop a knowledge base, a sort of a database of people and where they live. It is a big help, because the prison population is full of families – a grandfather, son, and grandson – it’s not too good. And they used to say in Wairoa when I was a young man, that if you got rid of sixteen families in Wairoa, you’d get rid of the crime. And I’d say quite categorically now, that if you got rid of fifty families in Hastings and fifty in Napier, you’d improve the crime statistics a lot in this area as well.

But I’d also like to say at this stage that we’re not just talking about Māori … I don’t know, haven’t got too many here at the moment … we’re not just talking about Māori because although they make up sixteen percent of the population, in my opinion they’re probably not as dangerous as other types. And the types that I found worst of all are the skinheads from Christchurch. That’s that neo-Nazi group; they’re pakeha, they wear their hair pretty short, and they’ve got these nasty Nazi swastika-type signs on their head[s]. And they are really nasty, tough guys, those. And I sometimes think a pakeha who has more premeditated intention can in some ways be a lot worse than a Māori.

So the first contact that I have with a prisoner – of course I’ll know his name; and because I’ve got a big knowledge base I’ll probably know where he comes from. And I often did. And sometimes I would know somebody in their family, and so I’d say, “How’s Auntie So-and-so?” Or, “How’s Uncle so-and-so?” Or “Are you still living at” [coughing] “Pakatahi?” Or, “Do you come from Te Araroa?” And they’d be quite staggered about this. But what was important was that they would know that I was taking an interest in them. I wasn’t just some honky … you know what a honky is? You’re a honky; we’re all honkies here! [Chuckles] They wouldn’t just regard me as a smart honky; I was a good honky. And so that’s quite important because you’ve got to be careful not to get into any kind of judgment situation, because they are really hard-wired for judgment. It’s quite important that you don’t get into that situation.

As a matter of policy, I did not try to find out what they all were there for, because I used to find that if I knew … there’s a certain amount of notoriety about certain prisoners. You would know the really bad ones, because you would’ve heard about them; read about them in the paper. But I used to make a policy of not trying to find out what they did, because I think it used to cloud my professional judgment as to the treatment that I might be giving. I also think it’s very important about respect; I think you have to respect … I think, generally speaking we would all agree with that, wouldn’t we? That if you treat somebody with respect, it’s very hard for them to not be respectful back to you. I think that’s quite important.

And so, because of all these … I suppose you might call them relaxation strategies … I got to get a lot of confidences from some of these guys. They would tell be about their crimes; they would tell me about whether they were pleased they did it, or whether they regretted doing it. I got to know a lot about them, especially about their family problems, because a young man might come into prison there, and he’s got a girlfriend out in the outside world; and of course she’s not going to hang around waiting for him, is she? I mean, she’s most definitely going to be off enjoying life with somebody else. And there would be men in there who were worried about their families, you know … Mum’s at home with the kids; money’s short … and every time she comes to see him he gets an ear-bashing, doesn’t he? So things aren’t too good. And of course they’ve also got hopes and dreams like anybody else, and so I got to know a lot about them, and they used to tell me about a lot of the things that they did. And that’s what I’m going to talk about next, but I’d just like to say at this stage, although I might sound sympathetic to them, I don’t condone crime … if you do the crime, you do the time. It’s as easy as that.

But I did pick up a few tips. [Chuckles] So I’ll tell you about one tip to start with, and that is in respect of the Hole-in-the-wall Gang. Have you heard about the Hole-in-the-wall Gang? They were round quite a few years ago when the banks weren’t too secure with their money machines. They didn’t have them tied down very much, did they? And so these guys would turn up in their ute with a bull-bar on the front; they’d ram the building; ram the money machine off its base; they would then reverse the vehicle; they would have some kind of lifting apparatus in the back of the vehicle, pick up the money machine and off they would go – in this case, to Muriwai Beach. Now Muriwai Beach of course, has got a lot of sandhills. What they would do then – they would dig a hole, put the machine in the hole, plant the plastic explosion [explosive] and use a detonator, cover the thing up so it stifled the noise and made the explosion go inwards. Now, where they put the plastic explosion [explosive] on that money machine is the key. And I know the answer to that. [Laughter]

Anyway, he was out there for a while; and you wouldn’t believe it – the next time I saw him he was on TV! No – he wasn’t being interviewed by Paul Holmes – he was walking around on the roof on Mt Eden Prison, waving a flag. [Chuckles] They had some kind of a riot and some of them had got onto the roof, and he was up there doing his thing. Well, I didn’t see him again for a while, and then a few years later he turns up at Mangaroa Prison out here in Mangaroa Road, again. And I said, “Oh, you must be enjoying prison life – you’ve come back again”, and he started mumbling and grumbling about Asians. And I said, “What’s wrong, what’s wrong?” And he told me what happened. What happened was that his gang tunnelled under the road, or underneath some shops or something, underneath this jeweller’s shop. They came up underneath this strong room there. Anyway, they managed to gain access to whatever they were after, and they stole $700,000 worth of jewellery. I said to him, “How did you know it was $700,000?” These guys – they always seem to know how much money they’ve stolen. Well, they must be obsessed with that. But anyway, they stole this jewellery and they gave it to this Chinese fence to distribute it. But what happened of course, was that the police got onto the Chinese fence; he squealed, and they ended up in gaol, didn’t they? So that was why he was again … so that was the Hole-in-the-wall Gang. I haven’t heard much about them recently.

Another one I would like to talk about is the Post Office robbery in Napier a few years ago. And the reason I’m going to talk about this one is because this guy would have to be the unluckiest criminal that I’ve met out there; [chuckles] unlucky to get caught, let’s put it that way. What happened was that him and his mates decided that the best way to bypass the security was to go in through the roof. And so they went in through the roof and while they were climbing down through the building one of them fell, and he fell right through the ceiling of the strongroom. Now you might all say to yourself, “Well how the hell could that happen?” Well, they had a concrete wall, concrete floor and a pinex ceiling. [Laughter] Anyway, they literally fell into the money! [Chuckles] $250,000 in used notes; they knew how much. [Chuckles] Anyway, they didn’t have enough bags to put it in so they stuffed it in their pockets and whatever else they had, and they climbed out through the roof and went home to bed; their flat was in Milton Road. And of course the alarm didn’t go off and the police didn’t know about it.

Next morning a guy’s walking down Milton Road with his dog. The dog sniffs a roll of $50 notes in the gutter. This guy, being a responsible citizen, takes the $50 notes around to the police station, and they said to him, “Where did you get this from?” And he told them where and they said, “Oh, that’s an interesting place.” And so [chuckle] next minute they turned up at this flat there and arrested these guys while they were still in bed. Now, don’t you think that’s a bit unlucky? [Laughter] I thought so. [Chuckles]

Then of course there’s another guy I met out there, and him [he] and his mates, they were robbing these Australian banks. Now I said to him, “Well, you must have got deported?” Yes, he did. But he said, “You know, it’s not fair. Banks go around defrauding the insurance companies.” And I said, “Why’s that?” And he said, “Well, we robbed this bank”, and he said, “we took $50,000. But he said, “Next day it was reported in the paper that we took $70,000.” [Chuckles] So he said, “D’you know what’s happening, Rex?” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “They’re defrauding the insurance company by [of] $20,000.” [Laughter] So I said, “That’s why you went back and robbed the bank again, was it?” “Yes.” [Chuckles] So that was that, yeah.

There’s another one – I’d like to talk about a transvestite this time. Her name’s Natasha, and Natasha’s got all the equipment upstairs so she’s obviously been on the hormones. At any rate, she likes to look like a female … he likes to look like a female. One day I saw her out there and she was wearing this red, red lipstick. And I said to her, “I know you cross-dressers are not allowed to wear lipstick – what’s that red lipstick you’ve got on there?” And she said, “Oh”, she said, “it’s not lipstick, it’s crayon.” [Chuckles] Anyway, she was the front person for the Westpac bank robbery in New Plymouth – I believe; although you never know, because they don’t always tell you the truth of course. But to me she was a dangerous prisoner; and why was she dangerous? It was because she had Hepatitis C. And Hepatitis is one of the big dangers working in a prison. I’ve got an immunity to Hepatitis B – I found that out once because I went to see if I needed a vaccine and I found out that I had an immunity. But Hepatitis C’s very dangerous, and transvestites; people who use needles; are very dangerous to people like me who deal with body fluids, working with the mouth and with blood. Anyway, I’d just like to say that as an aside.

Getaways: there’s [there’re] some interesting guys, try to you know, disguise their getaway. One guy went to school with my daughter in Wairoa; he told me this, and I thought, ‘This is interesting’, ‘cause this was at primary school. And anyway, I said, “What are you in here for?” And he said, “Oh”, he said, “I robbed the Newtown New World.” I said, “How did you get caught?” “Oh”, he said, “We decided we’d walk up the road with the trolley, you know, because”, he said, “I don’t think they would’ve noticed us.” “Well”, I said, “They would have noticed you if you got very far from the supermarket.” And that’s what happened. I wouldn’t call that a very intelligent getaway. [Chuckles]

I’d like to talk about rapists. Rape’s an abominable crime. The first one I’d like to talk about is a guy called Vance; this guy is a pathogenic [pathological] liar, as are a lot of them. You couldn’t believe what they tell you, really. He told me he was in there because his girlfriend had accused him of rape, and he hadn’t done it at all. And she sent him a birthday card and wished he was having a good time in the holiday pen. But at any rate, I said to one of the nurses out there, you know, “It’s terrible that, you know, he should be accused of something that he didn’t do.” And she said, “Don’t be so naive, Rex.” And I do tend to be a bit naive. She said to me, “Don’t you believe it – he raped an eighty-five-year-old woman.” So you know – you just don’t know what you’re dealing with.

But the one that I would really like to talk about is a Māori boy from the Waikato. Now he came into my surgery; very good-looking fellow indeed. I thought to myself, ‘Good-looking, and quite well-mannered, but depressed. Then I had some reason to go to look in the medical records – for some reason or other, and quite by accident I found the psychiatrist’s record of his offending; a report to the Court about his record of offending, and perhaps why he’d offended. This guy had been adopted out as a baby; he had seven different adoptive parents in the first twelve years of life. Now that might give you some idea why he was a rapist … a double rapist. And this kind of thing has been borne out on the Darklands programme at the moment, with Nigel Latta. I don’t know whether you’ve been watching that programme, but Nigel Latta goes to a great deal of trouble looking at the background of people to try to find out an explanation as to why they do what they do, and it’s quite revealing. And this guy, I thought, had some background in respect of that. He then got institutionalised, as I would call it, because from being a polite, nice-mannered guy when he first came in, by the last time I saw him – that was about three visits – he became surly, and grumpy and that kind of guy. But the worst thing about it all – and this is the thing that I really can remember him for – was that he tattooed his nose black. Now just imagine, if you tattoo your nose black, if you’re good looking you’re going to make a helluva mess of your – and I thought it was extremely sad, that that’s what institutionalisation had done to that fellow.

However, what you’ve got to remember about crime is that these guys … it’s all a matter of choice, and Latta really emphasises that in his programmes. It’s all a matter of choice, because there are plenty of people that are brought up in a poor background who don’t resort to crime. They end up good people. So just because, you know, you had a rough upbringing, doesn’t mean to say that you have to resort to crime.

Murderers: I hope this is not getting too depressing. Murderers … I’m not au fait with all the reasons as to what they do out there at all, but by and large I think what happens with a murderer – once you get convicted you’re sent to Paremoremo in Auckland, and there you spend about the first six years of your sentence. And while you’re there they are assessing your security risk. And so if they decide that you know, you’re not likely to run away and you’re not going to be a nuisance to them or to the other inmates, you’ll then get sent back to the regional prisons. And that’s where we run into them, of course.

One in particular I’d like to talk about – you might remember this. There was a murder out at the Brookfields Bridge, and this guy and his mate raped this girl by the Brookfields Bridge. And then after they’d raped her she turned around and made some kind of derogatory comment about their masculinity, and they turned around and killed her. Now this guy, when I first went out there, he was a relatively young man but he was the alpha male in the prison. He was the top dog. He was a vicious killer, you see, and he was physically in good condition; yes, he was the ultimate alpha male. A few years later he got sent back to Paremoremo, probably because he was misbehaving. While he was back there in Paremoremo he killed another inmate. And I said to him … ‘cause I get to know these guys quite well; they tell me these things. I said to him, “What happened?” And he said, “Well, he had a weapon and I had a weapon; if I didn’t kill him he would’ve killed me. Simple as that.” And so he killed the other guy and of course he got another life sentence. So now he’s in there for two life sentences. Lovely, isn’t it? Anyway, now of course he’s about fifty years of age, but he’s no longer the alpha male; he’s got older, fatter, unfit, and no longer a very presentable individual.

Burglars: How many people here’ve been affected by a burglary at their house? There you go. Well so have I – twice. One guy up there – his name’s Tony, he’s a real recidivist and repeat offender. He turned up there yet again, and I said, “Oh, welcome back, Tony”, you know, “welcome back.” I said, “Just make sure the next time you leave here, you don’t go anywhere near my house and touch my house.” And he said, “Oh Rex”, he said, “I don’t do residential.” [Laughter] I said, “What do you do?” He says, “Industrial.” [Chuckles] So if there’s anybody who owns a business down Omahu Road or Onekawa, look out.” [Chuckles]

Another one I want to talk about – I call this my scruffy pakeha incident. One of my neighbours … pretty fond of swearing … he says, “If you see this effing so-and-so out the effing so-and-so, then”, he said, “you make sure you don’t give him an effing local anaesthetic.” He gave me his name, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, I can’t do that … I can’t do that because that would be, you know, unprofessional. Can’t do that.’ “Well”, he said, “well, just make sure you hurt him somehow or other.” [Chuckles] So anyway, I go out to the prison and there he is – the very person; the very first patient on the list the next time I went out there. And there he was standing before me – a tall, scruffy, dirty, long-haired pakeha. And I thought to myself, ‘Hmm.’ Anyway, I said to him, “Now, some of my neighbours don’t like you – you’d better make sure, you know, you don’t come anywhere near my house.” He said, “Oh, I know where you live.” [Chuckles] He says, “You live in that two-storeyed house down St Georges Road.” Well I’ll tell you what – that took the sails out of my [wind out of my sails]. [Chuckles] Anyway, I said, “Well just make sure you don’t touch my house.” And he [said], “Well, you don’t need to worry about that, Rex”, he said, “I’ve sold the business.” [Laughter] And I said to him, “Who’ve you sold the business to?” He said, “I sold it to my son.” [Chuckles] His patch was from Pukahu near the St George’s Road, right up to Waipatu … all that area of land between Havelock North and Hastings. All that land through there. Now I don’t know whether his son is still in the business, but if you live in that area, that’s what you’re up against.

Fraud: Oh, no, I want to talk about another burglary. This time, my burglary. We’ve been burgled twice, but the second time they smashed their way in, took quite a bit, and that was the end of that; never heard anything from the police. They came and had a look a couple of days later, and that was the end of the matter for me, and I thought, ‘Oh well, just live and let live.’ About a month later, the police rang me up and they said, “Oh Rex, we’ve found out who did your house.” I said, “Really!” And they gave me the four names. I thought that was a bit unusual, but I suppose if I’m in the business of looking after these fellows, it’s a good way of getting even. [Chuckles] The first one that came in – of course they go to Mangaroa – and the first one that comes in, he’s got toothache. Well of course I saw his name on the list, and I said to him, “I’m not going to treat you; you can just wait”, you know; “you can put up with your toothache.” And so I made him put up with his toothache, and he went on and on and on; he grizzled and grizzled and grumbled and he went on and on and on. And in the end they took him down to Manawatu Prison because I wouldn’t treat him. And I felt quite bitter about this because they did this on a Friday when I was out at the prison, and I thought it was a bit unfair.

Anyway, the second one was a kid, and he wanted this – what do they call it? Family Conference thing, and I admit, I refused to have anything to do with that because I think it’s just a plea for them to get a lesser sentence if they cooperate. Any rate, I said no, I wouldn’t do it. So he wrote me a letter, and he said he was sorry for what he’d done and that he had a minimal involvement; he just drove the getaway car. And I thought, ‘Oh, well, maybe you’re only sixteen; maybe you did drive the getaway car.’

Well, I then saw another guy and this time this one ended up in my chair, and so I couldn’t do much about it except to tell him what I thought about what he’d done. And I said to him, “You know, picking on my house on a Friday when you know perfectly well I’m out at the prison, I think is damn unfair!” And he said, “Oh no – we didn’t do that, Rex, it was random!” I said, “Random? How can it be random?” I said, “when you know I’m out here.” “Oh”, he said, “we just drove along and your place looked pretty inviting so we went in. Any rate”, he said, “I had minimal involvement.” I said, “What was that, Eddie?” He said, “I drove the getaway car.” [Laughter] I said, “Mmm, that’s good”, I said, “Did you drive it to the scene of the crime or away from it?” [Chuckles] Yeah; I was not impressed.

Fraud: There’s one guy out there who bought an expensive horticultural property down Pakowhai Road, and he didn’t have quite enough money so he got a second mortgage finance from the Hong Kong Bank. Unfortunately for him, the Hong Kong bank has decided to take a holiday in New Zealand; decided to have a look at where some of their securities were, and found out that they had one security on a holiday camp down Mangaroa Road in Hastings. [Chuckles] Second mortgage. Lovely, isn’t it?

Paedophiles: I think the trouble with paedophilia, in my opinion, is that these guys … they haven’t got their morals right, have they? They don’t know what’s acceptable moral behaviour. They just don’t know. And also, I think it’s very hard to fix, too, ‘cause once you get that kind of thing in your brain it’s pretty hard to fix, isn’t it? And Graham’s a good example; he’s been out there for donkey’s years. They decided to give Graham a chance; they let him go home to Auckland because his mother and sister vouched for his integrity at home – they would look after him and make sure he didn’t get into trouble. Well, it only took about three months and he was back again. I said to Graham, I said, “What happened? You had a chance, mate, you had a chance. What happened?” And he said, “Well”, he said, “I just couldn’t help myself.” I thought that was pretty sad. He just couldn’t help himself. Typical paedophilia behaviour.

Drugs: Drugs … we hear a lot about marijuana being a safe drug; it’s not. If you have a reefer of marijuana, it takes six months for it to get out of the body. And there are people out there – chronic users of marijuana – who I’ve seen who are absolutely away with the fairies, so I don’t know, you know, how it can be justified … I suppose for medical reasons, perhaps.

The big problem today is methamphetamine of course. It’s a really very serious problem; it’s ruining a lot of people’s lives. And it creates crime because they have to do crime in order to sustain the habit. I know a number of drug dealers … [chuckle] … “never touched the stuff in my life”; of course. But basically they have no empathy whatsoever; none whatsoever with the victim. They couldn’t give a damn about it. One guy said to me, he said, “I come from an underprivileged family. We never had anything; there was never any spare money.” And he said, “All of a sudden I had all of this money. Did you know, I had $10,000 in the bank.” And I thought to myself, ‘Well, $10,000 might have been a lot of money to him, but $10,000 is not a lot of money in today’s society, is it? With houses costing a million.’

I’d just like to review some of the things I said earlier about the prison. We have to have rules in society, don’t we? If you don’t obey the rules, well then you have to pay the consequences. We have upwards of ten thousand prisoners in New Zealand prisons today, and they say that the cost is $100,000 per prisoner. So you multiply ten thousand by a hundred thousand, and it’s costing the country $1billion per year to operate its prison service. That’s an awful lot of money, isn’t it? New Zealand is the fourth highest per capita imprisonment country in the world. It’s not good, is it? And the reason for this is that we’ve got a high recidivist rate … re-offending rate. And why have we got a high re-offending rate? It’s because we’ve got so many dysfunctional families. It’s just terrible. Families where, you know, if you don’t socialise a child in the first seven years; if you don’t give them any love; any feeling of being wanted; give them good examples; then what are they going to end up [as]? There’s an old saying, isn’t there? “Give me the child for the first seven years and I’ll give you the man.’ I can’t remember who quoted [said] that.

So if you’re affected by crimes, how do you cope? How do you actually cope? It’s quite easy for Christians because they can just resort to The Bible – and I’m a Christian. Matthew 18, verses 21 and 22: ‘Then Peter came to Him and asked, ‘Sir, how often should I forgive a brother who has sinned against me? Seven times?’ And Jesus replied, ‘Seventy times seven.’ Matthew 6: ‘Your heavenly father will forgive you if you forgive those who have sinned against you. But if you refuse to forgive, He will not forgive you.’ And Luke 6: ‘Do not judge and you will not be judged; do not condemn and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.’

It’s sometimes hard to forgive, isn’t it? I mean, I can imagine that if you lost a child, or you have had some terrible crime inflicted against your family, it’s terribly difficult, isn’t it? To forgive. But I think you’ve also got to remember that if you don’t forgive, then you’ll let it gnaw into your own soul, won’t you? But I’ll tell you what – they don’t worry about you, so why should you worry about them? That’s the way I look at it, anyway. You can forgive, but you don’t have to like the person, do you? Or you don’t have to be soft. You just have to get on with your life, ‘cause it’s all about choice, isn’t it, for them? So you don’t have to feel sorry for them. But I think what I’ve found quite interesting, is that I don’t like people who have no remorse for what they’ve done. I mean, sure enough, you can make mistakes in life, and you can do things that you later very much regret; but if you’ve got no remorse for what you’ve done then I’m afraid I have a different attitude towards you. That’s my own personal point of view; and I think you should stay in there a bit longer, shouldn’t you? But at $100,000 a year, it’s quite a hard penalty, isn’t it?

So where do we go from here? What are we going to do about all of this? I think first of all we’ve got to maintain family standards, don’t we? We’ve got to look after families; preserve that kind of thing. And we’ve got to have rules, and we’ve got to stick to the standards, too, don’t we? I mean, you know, if we say you’re going to get ten years if you do something wrong, well, you’ve got to stick with it. Don’t be like the examinations they have in New Zealand today – nobody fails. Let’s not get that creeping into penalties. And I think also … I think it’s very important … we need good leadership, don’t we? We need good leadership. Pretty good example at the moment, isn’t there? I won’t mention the political party, but you know, things have got to be right. Ultimately however, it’s a political problem, isn’t it? Really. It costs so much money to run prisons that that ultimately will decide what happens to them.

Thank you.


Joyce: Rex, that was fantastic. We want questions, please?

Question: Rex, did it make a difference when they stopped … like, Mangaroa – they had big vegetable gardens there for the prisoners to do. And then the government closed it down ‘cause they thought it was going to take away from the private individual. Do you think that was a big mistake?

Rex: Depends whether you were in business growing vegetables or not. [Chuckles] They have quite a number of different things out there, and the schemes haven’t flourished because of that. Every time somebody does something good out there it gets criticised by the community, and they have to … they were making shoes out there; very nice shoes, I might add – men’s shoes. But there’s a firm in Wanganui – I think they were also making them very well in Wanganui. But that went by the wayside because private enterprise complained.

Question: Do they have sugary drinks out there? [Chuckles]

Rex: I would say they’ve got everything out there, [laughter] including booze. No, of course not, no. They get three basic meals a day … not a very high standard. I’d hate to have to eat out there because by the time it gets from the kitchen to the prisoner, it’s cold. Awful.

Joyce: Rex, what’s the tip-off of getting stuff sneaked into prison that you’ve heard about?

Rex: Oh, they just throw it over the fence.

Joyce: They do. So now they’ve got drones, of course.

Rex: Yes. I don’t know how it gets there, I don’t have any problems. I mean, they don’t separate them when they’re visiting. I’ve seen the visiting there. I mean young men … they’ve got the girlfriend up there and she’s cuddling up to them. I mean they could quite easily slip it in there. You know, doubtless there’re probably officers that would [?] too; I’m not sure about that.

Question: It seems to me if they re-offend all the time, the prison is too soft, and it’s too nice a place to go.

Rex: It is. They’ve got television, they’ve got all kinds of things. In fact, they’ve got a lot of rights out there which they shouldn’t have. No, it’s too pleasant a place.

Comment: If they made it tougher people wouldn’t want to go back there.

Rex: You’d think so, wouldn’t you? It doesn’t work [chuckle] like that. Do you think I should use no anaesthetic? [Laughter]

Question: Just asked that question about re-offending, I think – I worked in the prison as a drug and alcohol counsellor, and part of the reason they re-offend is because there’s no follow-up when they leave the prison; and that’s the major problem, is the lack of follow-up.

Rex: Yes. I’d have to agree with that. They do run pre-employment schemes, and some of them manage to get a job, but by and large they go back to the environment that they came from. They’re more than likely to re-offend.

Question: It’s a silly question, but … you’ve got all your fingers still. [Laughter] Do you ever have worry about that?

Rex: No. Not as one … years ago, a kid jumped out of his chair and swung a few, and I had to duck. [Chuckles] But he [his] was a behavioural problem. No, none of them have tried to bite me, although they think they might’ve done it sometimes, but you don’t leave your hands in their mouth. [Chuckles] Joyce: What was your feeling about the whole state of their teeth, and general health? You know, you could always look at how a body is by the oral health, but … generally it is not good?

Rex: Yeah, generally it is not good, yes. Mostly neglect, because a lot of people can’t afford dentistry today, and it’s not good. It’s not good; dental fees are high, but there’s reasons for that. Most of the reasons is [are] because they’d rather spend their money on something else other than looking after their teeth.

Joyce: And what routine medical check-up [do] they get? [Do] they get that as commonly as when they need it?

Rex: Oh, yeah, they get better care there than they do outside. They spent $1million, the Hawke’s Bay Prison, on the new medical facility there. I have better equipment in my surgery at the prison than I have at home. Mind you, at home I have a ‘no frills’ practice, but … but out there they’ve got electronic taps; like, for instance, you can go up to the tap; to turn it on you just need to go like that; [demonstrates] the thing turns on. [Chuckles]

Joyce: And what’s the number there now?

Rex: ‘Bout seven hundred, I think. I don’t know whether the number’s gone up; I haven’t asked the lady who succeeded me whether they’ve got more prisoners.

Question: Rex, you mentioned that you always work on your own. We had visions there’d be a couple of police standing next to them?

Rex: No, none. Well, I practise two-handed dentistry – I’ve got to sit down, and so therefore I don’t need an assistant. I’ve got nurse assistants out there, but they used to just usher the prisoner in and then go away, and leave me. Especially in the older medical unit. There’re people round and about, and in the medical unit at the moment we’re in a room which is just off the main consult area. It’s got a big glass window and they can look in at me, so I’m under observation. There’s a panic button there, but I never used it. And if I felt a bit uncomfortable about some of them, I just used to walk out. If I didn’t like what was going on I just walked out into the secure area, and the prisoner would be hit; you know, picked up and be taken back to his cell and told he won’t get any more treatment, so you know, I didn’t have any trouble.

Joyce: You said they put their name on a list; do you wait for them to approach for a dentist? Is that how it works?

Rex: Oh, they put their name on the dental list, and there’s about forty or fifty on the waiting list all the time, and we gradually work our way through them. They get treated within a month; it’s probably just as good as outside.

Question: Do you [?see?] anything major, like implants, or just sort of basic, like fillings. [Chuckles]

Rex: Well, some of them did ask for implants, ‘cause you know, crime pays … [chuckles] … and some of them have plenty of money. I’ve seen more implants out there than I’ve seen in my own practice. [Chuckles]

Question: But who would pay for that? The crime?

Rex: No, no; they don’t get implants. [Chuckles] They get extractions and basic fillings, and a clean if I feel like it. [Chuckles] If I think they’re worth it, you know – no use cleaning a mouth when they’re not going to look after it. No, no, it’s pretty basic and if they want special treatment they’ve got to wait ‘til they’re released from prison. They can wait.

Joyce: Everyone happy? Rex, wonderful. Thanks for coming, and I know a lot of people have heard him before ‘cause it was other people that told us about you. So that is fantastic, Rex.


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Landmarks Talk 8 August 2017


  • Rex Bartlett

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