A more vigorous defence of Stewart Murray Wilson

The media have told us that Murray Wilson refused to attend a rehabilitation programme while in prison. In fact, the Corrections Department refused to let him attend

Murray Wilson, aka the ‘Beast of Blenheim’, sat in prison for 18 years doing next to nothing – and the whole country (well, Wanganui anyway) is up in arms. Why? That ‘doing nothing’ in prison seems to be at the heart of the problem.

For many years Wilson was held in Rolleston Prison, a low-security prison with a sex offenders unit – just what Wilson needed. But Corrections refused to put him into this programme because he wouldn’t 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 Corrections wouldn’t even let him see a psychologist. Speaking via video link to the High Court at Wellington in June 2012, Wilson complained that he had also been denied psychological counselling because he would not admit his guilt – he’s had only four hours with a psychologist in the 18 years he’s been in prison.

‘Denial’ is often an issue when dealing with drug addicts and alcoholics. Alcohol and drug counsellors work with denial by using ‘motivational interviewing’ to enhance insight and motivation. It requires a non-confrontational approach and the ability to ‘roll with resistance.’ Once rapport has been established, then more in-depth treatment can begin.

Unfortunately, Corrections was not able to establish a rapport with Wilson. He refused to even meet with the psychologist who wrote the final risk assessment on him, so she prepared her report from information on his file. Why would Wilson not want to meet with her? Probably because she had written a number of previous reports which were highly critical of him. Clearly there was not a lot of trust between Wilson and this particular psychologist.

Wilson comes from a background that makes it very hard for him to trust anyone. His parents were both alcoholics and as a teenager he spent long periods in psychiatric institutions. Given his personal limitations, that puts the onus on Corrections’ psychologists to make more of an effort. 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 counselling or attend treatment in the sex offenders unit unless he admitted his guilt.

The most pathetic part of this farce 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 criminals; the court has the power to send them to prison; but Corrections claims that once in prison they can’t compel anyone do a programme.  He’s in prison for crying out loud. Attendance should be compulsory – especially when international research indicates compulsory treatment is just as effective as voluntary treatment and that long term programmes work better than short-term programmes – because they give an offender time to become engaged.  That’s why the sex offenders’ programme is the longest the Department provides – it takes nine months and reduces re-offending by more than 50 per cent.

Unfortunately, Corrections never gave Wilson a chance. They seemed to think he had to have the necessary insight and motivation right from the start. This is totally unrealistic. The majority of offenders operate like alcoholics or drug addicts who may be unmotivated or in denial at the start, but become engaged once a programme gets going.

The reality is that Corrections made almost no effort to rehabilitate Wilson. All they did is isolate and contain him – for 18 years. Now he’s being released under the most stringent conditions ever imposed on anyone 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.

Victoria University Professor, Tony Ward, a clinical psychologist with expertise in sexual offenders has described Wanganui’s reaction as “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 6%.”

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 the core issue – his drug addiction. What's more they ignored the recommendations of six expert reports pointing out that drug use was a risk factor for Burton and did not bother to provide the Board with an alcohol and drug assessment on him despite a statutory obligation to do so.

The Department had Wilson in custody for even longer – 18 years, and they’ve done exactly the same thing – nothing.

One can only conclude that Corrections is deliberately setting up Murray Wilson to fail – just like they did with Graeme Burton