Graeme Burton & Murray Wilson have a lot in common - both were set up to fail

Tuesday 28 August 2012, 6:16PM

Graeme Burton spent 14 years in prison  - doing next to nothing - before he was released and killed Karl Kuchenbecker. Murray Wilson, aka the ‘Beast of Blenheim’ -  committed his crimes well over 18 years ago and has been sitting in prison ever since - also doing nothing. Now the whole country (well, Wanganui anyway) is up in arms. Why? It's the ‘doing nothing’ in prison that seems to be the problem.

For many years Wilson was held in Rolleston Prison, a low-security prison with a sex offenders unit that delivers group-based treatment to child sex offenders - just what Wilson needed.  However,  Corrections refused to put him into this programme because he would not acknowledge  his guilt. That’s very strange considering the entry criteria for this programme state that "denial or other cognitive distortions related to offending behaviour" are an indication of suitability for the programme.

Wilson clearly lacks insight, but it seems that Corrections wouldn’t even let him work with a psychologist to address the issue. Speaking via video link to the High Court at Wellington in June 2012, Wilson complained, not for the first time, that he had even been denied counselling with a psychologist for the same reason - he would not admit he was guilty. He said he has had only four hours counselling in the 18 years he has been in prison.

Dealing with denial

Being ‘in denial’ is not uncommon and is often an issue when dealing with drug addicts and alcoholics.  ‘Ambivalence’ is similar - a state of mind where the drinker or drug user is aware they have a problem but is not yet willing to address it.  Alcohol and drug counsellors work with ambivalence and denial on a daily basis by using ‘motivational interviewing’ – individual counselling designed to enhance insight and motivation. It requires a non-confrontational approach to the client and the ability to ‘roll with resistance.’ Once rapport has been established using these techniques, then more in-depth treatment can begin.

Unfortunately, it seems Corrections psychologists were not able to establish rapport with Wilson. He refused to even meet with the psychologist who wrote the final risk assessment on him and so she prepared her report from information on his file.  Apart from the dubious ethics involved in writing a report without talking to the subject of that report, why would Wilson not want to meet with her? Probably because Corrections psychologists are generally employed to write risk assessment reports rather than provide therapy - and she had already written a number of highly negative reports about him.   Clearly there was not a lot of trust between Wilson and this particular psychologist.

Wilson’s background

This is not surprising. Wilson comes from a background that makes it very hard for him to trust anyone. His parents were both alcoholics and it appears he was sexually abused as a child himself.   As a teenager he was hospitalised for a long period in psychiatric institutions, and had little in the way of education. Given his personal limitations, that puts the onus on Corrections psychologists to make more of an effort. But they didn’t. They met with him only four times in 18 years and declared him unco-operative. They wouldn’t allow him to attend any counselling or attend treatment in the sex offenders unit unless he admitted his guilt.

The weird part about all this is that Corrections claims it cannot compel offenders to attend rehabilitation programmes. That makes no sense at all. The police have the power to arrest offenders; the court has the power to send them to prison; but Corrections claims that once in prison they can’t make anyone do a programme. That’s bullshit.  He’s in prison for God’s sake – attendance should be compulsory – especially when international research indicates that compulsory treatment is just as effective as voluntary treatment. The research also shows that long term programmes work better than short-term programmes - because they give an offender time to become engaged in the process. The sex offenders’ programme is the longest programme the Department runs – it takes nine months and reduces the risk of re-offending by more than 50 per cent.

Setting offenders up to fail

Corrections didn't think Wilson deserved a chance. They seemed to think he had to have the necessary insight and want to attend right from the start.  That's just totally unrealistic.  Offenders often behave like alcoholics or drug addicts who are unmotivated, in denial or ambivalent at the start of a rehabilitation programme, but become engaged once it gets going.

The reality is that Corrections was responsible for rehabilitating Wilson but made almost no effort to do so.  All they did with him in prison is isolate and contain him – for 18 years. Now he’s being released to Wanganui under the most stringent conditions ever imposed on anyone ever released in New Zealand. That's  more containment. The people of Wanganui have made it very clear they don’t want him. That’s more isolation.

Someone who knows something about rehabilitation is Victoria University Professor, Tony Ward, a clinical psychologist with expertise in sexual offenders.  He described the fervour at Wanganui's public meetings as a type of "moral panic" and said that given Mr Wilson's age, he was unlikely to reoffend.  "The reoffending rate for very high risk people over 60 is about six per cent." Professor Ward said the best way to rehabilitate sex offenders was to keep them in the midst of other people - where they could be watched - and give them support.”

This is all so familiar. Graeme Burton committed two murders under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Corrections had him in their custody for 14 years and never put him into a programme to address a core issue - his drug addiction. They’ve had Wilson in custody for 18 years and done the same thing. One can only conclude that Corrections is deliberately setting up Murray Wilson to fail – just like they did with Graeme Burton.


Roger Brooking, Spokesperson for the Howard League for Penal Reform