The aim of the handful of volunteers who run the service is to help maintain links between families and prisoners.
“All prisoners will be released one day. Enabling families to maintain relationships means that when prisoners come out their families can assist them with rehabilitation - and the prisoners don’t feel as isolated, alienated and embittered as they might without that ongoing contact.”
The visitors’ bus service was set up during the heyday of community activism in Auckland. It has been subsidised by PARS Inc. since the 1980s, but the service has its roots in the early 1970s when a group of young activists found it nearly impossible to visit friends who were incarcerated in Waikeria Prison and Paremoremo on Auckland’s northern fringe.
“Straight away we found it extremely difficult to get to these places, and we saw others faced with the same problems. So we got together to do something about it - namely, running our own bus service to these places.”
The bus service was launched by the Ponsonby Peoples’ Union, a group mainly concerned with housing and food security. Mr Fowler was the group’s coordinator. Community activism was a phenomenon of the time, he says, and evident in other initiatives of the 70s including an Auckland food co-operative involving more than 600 families, and a tenants’ support group.
“If people saw a need they’d just roll up their sleeves and do it. There was an attitude which, in many ways, has been lost these days of people saying ‘bugger it, we’ll do it ourselves’. The prison visitors’ bus was a creature of those times.
“The Ponsonby Peoples’ Union believed that any hope of rehabilitation for prisoners largely depended on maintaining good contact with family outside. Lack of adequate transport to these isolated prisons was a major hurdle, so in 1972 we started a weekly bus service to Paremoremo and a monthly bus service to Waikeria - in those days a borstal - which has continued to this day.”
When the PPU folded about 1979, the group negotiated for the then Auckland regional authority to run a Saturday service to Paremoremo. Mr Fowler and others continued the Waikeria service.
PARS agreed to subsidise the Waikeria run in the early 1980s. Thanks to the PARS subsidy, passengers can make the 350km journey for a koha of up to $10 return, with pre-school children travelling free.
Mr Fowler says the PARS bus provides a vital community service. “The number of passengers fluctuates enormously from a handful to a couple of dozen people, but we often pick up entire whĈnau including pre-schoolers and grandparents, and people from up North travel to Auckland to catch the bus.
“Visiting hours are from 1pm til 3pm so we aim to get families there by 1, starting off from downtown Auckland and picking people up on the way by arrangement, often in South Auckland and further south like Papakura, Huntly and Hamilton.” Prisoners’ families are often forgotten by the justice system, Mr Fowler says. The bus service offers many passengers their only opportunity to see their loved ones.
“Prisoners’ families are ignored and overlooked and voiceless. Often when somebody is locked up, it’s not just that person who gets punished, it’s their family as well through no fault of their own. They often find themselves in a horrific situation with perhaps a breadwinner gone suddenly and family relationships turned upside down. There is little if any thought given to the hardships families might face. Maintaining contact helps alleviate some of those issues and can take a lot of stress out of the situation for both whānau and prisoners.”
Mr Fowler said drivers talk with the visitors, hear their stories and get to know them.
“In doing so, we’re able to make people aware of the services that PARS and other organisations offer, so that families aren’t left isolated and wondering how to cope. What I see is that families yearn for the day that their incarcerated relations can come out and start a new life, hopefully for the better.”
Drivers often experience the harrowing situation of visitors arriving at Waikeria only to find that loved ones have been transferred to another prison. “We are the ones left with the tearful family trying to sort out what they’re going to do next.”
But Mr Fowler says the positives of organising the visitors’ bus far outweigh any negatives. “It is never depressing. I see it optimistically - people co-operating, coming together in a positive way to change situations for the better.
That’s what I’ve seen over the years - ok, not every single time. When people are cut off from each other and alienated and isolated, there’s no hope in that situation. But, where there’s ongoing contact between prisoners and their families, by far the bulk of our passengers have good news stories and that’s heart-warming. It doesn’t always work out that way but there are a lot of good outcomes.”
• Roger Fowler runs the Mangere East Community Learning Centre, after-school care and holiday programmes, and a range of classes in adult education, fitness, languages and parenting. In 1998, passengers of the PARS Auckland Bus for Visitors to Waikeria nominated Mr Fowler for a Queen’s Service Medal for community service. It was awarded in 1999.
(PARS, annual report, 2013)