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State-run boys' home breeding ground for criminality - former resident

A man who has spent many years of his life in prison says he learnt his trade while in state-run boys' homes.

Daniel Rei has given evidence to the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care. Source: rnz.co.nz

By Andrew McRae for rnz.co.nz

Daniel Rei, 47, has given evidence to the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care as it focuses on residential care.

Rei, of Ngāti Toa Rangatira, has been in and out of jail, serving 18 years all up.

He first went into care at the age of 13, spending time at the Rosendale Family Home and then the Melville Boys' Home, ending up at Kohitere Boys' Training Centre.

He said violence permeated through all of the homes he was in and it started from day one.

"Everyone has seen those prison movies, with the whip-cracking guard who gives the welcome with jail speeches. It is actually a real thing. I don't know if they get it from the movies or the movies get it from them, but it's a real thing.

"They said 'look, you are going to go fine here if you do exactly what you are told and if you don't some sort of painful punishment physically is going to be inflicted on you, and this is not maybe, this is what is going to happen'."

He said there was always a culture of extreme violence and no narking, which was ingrained in him from the early days of residential care.

"And it has continued right up to the present where even today me sitting here makes me feel like death and it would be almost preferable than sitting here doing this."

He said most residential boys' homes were run along strict hierarchical lines by the boys themselves, and while staff were ultimately in charge they allowed the boys free rein.

"The older boys were used as overseers and because they had internalised a hierarchical structure from within then that was it. That was what everyone had to adhere to. So the boys had come up with this stuff inventively over time."

He said staff turned a blind eye to violence amongst the boys, but only until there could be repercussions and paper work had to be filled out.

Rei believed staff had an over-inflated sense of entitlement.

"Believing that 'this is just the way it is. We'll manage these little pricks anyway we can and we will use them to do it because it's not us beating them up, it's them beating each other up'.

"You guys can do whatever you want just don't let it get to the outside."

At Kohitere he spent spells in the secure unit, a total of 154 days.

He was the first boy ever to escape from the Kohitere secure unit and he took some other boys with him, "so they can share in the glory".

Apart from daily physical education, the rest of the time was spent on his own.

Rei said all he really learned in care was how to improve his criminal skill set.

"Learnt how to be sneakier, and more violent and fitter and just more angrier, really more angry," he said.

"How to fight better, how to fight more than one person, how to make improvised weapons, how to steal cars, how to commit successful arson if necessary. Concealing techniques for hiding contraband that are used in prisons worldwide. Don't forget it's not Shawshank Redemption, some of us were real small kids, and some of us were huge. All of the stuff you don't need to know really," he said.

Rei said he had destroyed his life with drugs, alcohol and with a casual attitude to violence, all learnt in boys' homes. He said it turned him into a monster.

"I'm still afflicted by the same feelings. I'm still affected by the past and the reality is it's never going to go away."

He said there were two Daniels, one he never wanted to be - broody, dark, socially isolated and sometimes violent, and the other, light hearted, cracking jokes, smart and accomplished, and he wished he was always the second one.

Rei left the hearing with a strong message for the Commissioners.

"Don't let this happen again to anyone please, for god's sake, don't because it's just created, it's a petri dish and a training ground that will continue and perpetuate violent criminality far into the future."

Rei has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a generalised anxiety disorder.