Saying a last goodbye to prison
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.
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.