Say­ing a last good­bye to prison

Central Leader - - News - By Janie Smith

It has housed some of the coun­try’s tough­est crim­i­nals, some of whom met their deaths at the gal­lows.

Now work has be­gun to re­place Mt Eden Prison, with lo­cal iwi and prison man­age­ment hold­ing a cer­e­mony to mark the oc­ca­sion on July 19.

A con­struc­tion team has now moved on to the site and will spend the next three months re­lo­cat­ing fa­cil­i­ties and de­mol­ish­ing sur­plus build­ings.

Be­fore the old build­ing be­comes ob­so­lete, the Cen­tral Leader took a look inside one of the coun­try’s old­est and most well-known jails.

The solid block work and low arched door­ways of the re­mand wing hail back to its Vic­to­rian ori­gins.

Built in the 1880s, the tiny three-by-four me­tre cells with sin­gle barred win­dows were not de­signed with pris­oner com­fort in mind.

The dingy cells house two in­mates in bunks, with a small toi­let and space for eat­ing.

It’s where pris­on­ers spend around 17 hours a day, eat­ing their meals and sleep­ing on thin mat­tresses.

The rest of the time they spend in the ex­er­cise yards, but there’s no gym equip­ment, just ta­bles and chairs ce­mented down.

Some of the yards have been cov­ered in to stop drugs and other con­tra­band be­ing thrown over from the out­side.

In the south wing, which houses pris­on­ers serv­ing sen­tences, in­mates have bright­ened up the bleak stone walls with large mu­rals.

One in­mate spent a year paint­ing a large scene show­ing char­ac­ters from the Lord of the Rings films. An­other is a replica of a Charles Goldie paint­ing and the outer wall of the chapel is cov­ered with re­li­gious paint­ings.

The sen­tenced pris­on­ers are the only group to be is­sued with a dark blue uni­form.

They also get a small gym, sit­u­ated where the gal­lows used to stand be­fore cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment was abol­ished in 1961.

The prison was the site of the ma­jor­ity of New Zealand’s ex­e­cu­tions and 11 bod­ies were ex­humed in 1989 and sent back to their places of ori­gin.

Mt Eden is now a tran­si­tional prison and most in­mates are sent to other fa­cil­i­ties once they have been sen­tenced.

Be­cause of that, there aren’t many jobs for pris­on­ers and those that ex­ist are closely con­tested.

“It gets them out of the yards,” says prin­ci­pal cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer Ed­die Ioane.

It also means they are more likely to stay at the prison, mak­ing it eas­ier for fam­ily and friends to visit.

A group does the laun­dry six days a week, wash­ing and dry­ing the sheets, tow­els and uni­forms.

Bunches of flax also hang in the laun­dry, used by in­mates in tra­di­tional weav­ing classes.

Pris­on­ers work in the kitchen, which was for­merly used as death row, pre­par­ing ce­real and toast for break­fast, sand­wiches or rolls for lunch and set-menu din­ners.

Auck­land’s in­creas­ingly mul­ti­cul­tural pop­u­la­tion is even re­flected in prison food, with ve­gan, veg­e­tar­ian and pork-free sand­wiches on of­fer.

In what passes for lux­ury in Mt Eden, the cells in the mod- ular unit are slightly larger and warmer.

Some in­mates fin­ish­ing their time at Mt Eden are al­lowed to stay in the block be­fore be­ing moved on.

“They can stay out most of the day and have their own kitch­enette where they can eat lunch if they want,” says Mr Ioane.

Mr Ioane has worked at the prison for nine years, and says work­ing in cor­rec­tions can give a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive to crime and crim­i­nals.

“A lot of them like to con­fide in us some­times, when they’ve talked to ev­ery­one in the yard and there’s no one else to tell their story to.”

He en­joys the ca­reer and says the new build­ing will be a good change.

“It’s some­thing new that you don’t know how it will op­er­ate. It will be more mod­ern.”

Con­struc­tion on the new prison is set to start in Oc­to­ber and will see 450 new beds pro­vided in the first phase.

The new build­ings are ex­pected to be fin­ished by 2011.

The main stone build­ing will be up­graded and used for ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Cor­rec­tions Min­is­ter Phil Goff re­cently an­nounced the $216.3 mil­lion cap­i­tal in­vest­ment and $35.6 mil­lion in op­er­at­ing ex­pen­di­ture over the next four years.

Al­though the new fa­cil­ity will be more mod­ern and se­cure, there are those who will miss the old prison.

Cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer Rob­bie Robin­son is re­tir­ing this month af­ter more than 33 years at Mt Eden and has seen many changes.

“The sys­tem has gone more to the hu­mane side of in­tern­ment, com­pared to what it was.

“In the old days, peo­ple came in and did penance. They weren’t given much in the way of ameni­ties.”

He says he will miss the old build­ing and the ca­ma­raderie of the staff.

“I think you be­come part of the old build­ing. You can’t get away from it.”

De­spite his long ser­vice, he’s not ready to com­pletely sever ties.

“If they make it into a mu­seum, I wouldn’t mind com­ing back to work as a guide part time.”

The Howard League for Pe­nal Re­form did not re­spond to ques­tions for­warded to them about the prison’s re­place­ment.

Pho­tos: JA­SON OXENHAM

Adding colour: In­mates serv­ing sen­tences have painted mu­rals in the prison’s south wing.

Bleak out­look: Mt Eden Prison’s small barred win­dows hail back to the Vic­to­rian era.

Prison life: A re­mand cell for two in­mates.

Long ser­vice: Cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer Rob­bie Robin­son has spent more than 33 years work­ing at Mt Eden Prison.

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