Squalid, sub-standard conditions at Mt Eden Prison

By Ruth Berry

A damning Corrections report on Mt Eden Prison reveals how squalid and sub-standard conditions at the ancient facility have been.

A desperate "business case" plea to Government for the prison to be replaced or substantially renovated, it lists a raft of health and safety problems, including exercise yards being flooded with sewage.

Corrections was exposed to prosecution and litigation on a number of fronts and the age and poor condition of the prison meant there was a "high likelihood of service failure, the consequence of which would be catastrophic."

Released to National MP Simon Power, the report was written in November 2004.

Corrections says it has now "patched up" problems it can address, diminishing the risks - but Mr Power is sceptical.

The department admits a number of conditions that make the prison sub-standard - can't be tackled under the current set-up.

It is preparing replacement options to present to Government this year, but has no guarantee of action.

It is already facing an inquiry into budget blow-outs in its prison building programme, now costing close to $1 billion, and needed to contain a spiralling prison muster.

Corrections had been planning for Mt Eden's closure or extensive refurbishment since 1995 and "options for the future of this facility have been presented over successive budget cycles to successive governments" the report notes wearily.

It describes the facility as "extremely inefficient to operate.... It is also sub-standard and unsafe in many respects and falls well-short of the basic requirements for a modern corrections facility."

Deferring decisions on its future would create a "growing operational risk". In addition to potential injury and lost life, a service failure would create the need to accommodate the 421 inmates elsewhere - but the muster problem meant there wasn't capacity to do so - the "catastrophic consequence".

The risks and issues listed were:

*serious non-compliance with building codes and standards, fire safety standards and health and safety requirements, placing Corrections at risk of prosecution

* vulnerable site and building infrastructure that is at risk of failure (eg. sewerage, power supply, and electrical and fire protection systems)

* sub-standard conditions for inmates (eg. insufficient day light and day space)

*unsatisfactory working conditions for staff (eg. lack of heating and proper air flow, severe space shortages)

*lack of facilities for disabled inmates, staff and visitors

*health problems arising from unsanitary conditions (eg. water leaking from ablution blocks to floors below)

*inmate and visitor management constraints that are far from modern practice

The number of suicides at the prison "has resulted in coroners placing Corrections on notice that the present conditions are only tolerable in light of major changes."

Their view required "careful consideration, particularly given that subsequent deaths could result in litigation by inmates' families."

Of particular risk was "a worsening of the current problem of sewage flooding into the exercise yards" and a walkway between the yards and kitchen, with the risk flooding would spread inside the prison.

"No work of the scale required to address these issues could occur in the old facility without transferring inmates to other sites," it states.

This has not occurred, yet Corrections chief financial John Ryan said $300,000 was spent on the site over the past year and "I think we've done everything we can to put everything into a holding pattern."

"It is still 140 years old and we can't change that, but we've addressed the immediate issues, it is in a safe and healthy state."

With additional cells built, Corrections would now be able to accommodate the prison's inmates in the event of a service failure, he believed.

This is despite the fact the muster hit a record 7651 last week and Corrections chief executive Barry Matthews saying that despite building flat out "it's going to be tight by the time we get to June."

Corrections national property manager William Whewell said work on the sewage problem had reduced the risk of flooding in the yard to "medium" - and the risk of flooding into the building to "extremely low".

The leaking ablution blocks had been fixed and more sprinklers added although on that front "we can't get full compliance for the building."

On building non-compliance risks he said;"we have been talking to the Auckland City Council about the condition of the building. We are not subject to a prosecution unless we make some major changes to the building."

Mr Power said the report added weight to his call for an inquiry into Corrections.

The claim that the serious problems had been dealt with was "very hard to believe, given they are now spending over $600,000 a bed on the new prisons."

"If Corrections is able to tell the public that all of those issues have been addressed for $300,000, I'd be interested to know why such productivity didn't extend to the building programme."

"If they are going to apply a band-aid solution to Mt Eden, they have to show the public they have a long-term plan."

MT EDEN PRISON

* There's been a prison on the Mt Eden site since 1856.

* The original facility was a military stockade that became Auckland's major place of confinement when the old city jail was demolished in 1856.

* The original stone wall was completed in 1872 at which time the buildings were wooden.

* The foundations for the existing prison were laid in 1872 and work continued until the present buildings were completed in 1917.

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