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Prison offers chance to see where $380m went

By Simon O'Rourke

How do the curiously innocent get a night in the can without committing a heinous crime?

They pay $200 and apply for a mock conviction and - if successful, after being scrutinised by the Corrections Department - are issued with a "Warrant for Imprisonment" at the country's flashest new prison.

Prime Minister Helen Clark is set to officially open Springhill Correctional Facility at Hampton Downs, just off State Highway 1 near Meremere, today.

But before the country's latest state-of-the-art prison takes its first inmates, the department is offering 88 places to the public for a one-off overnight experience (alternatively 60 places are available for an afternoon experience).

The prison is to house criminals with a low to high-medium security classification.

Corrections Waikato-Central assistant manager Gavin Dalziel said the new prison's perimeter was surrounded by a 5m concrete barrier, topped by a 1m wire fence carrying an 8000-volt charge.

"The wires are designed to repel somebody but not kill them. To get up there in the first place would be extremely unusual.

Because before they get anywhere near there, there's other detection devices that would indicate that somebody was in that area and there would be a physical response by staff."

Other detection devices included motion identification and alarms, torque wire fencing, and closed circuit cameras.

The fence is 1.8km long and encloses an area of 20.4ha.

Mr Dalziel said metal detectors and drug detection dogs had recently screened the prison grounds, looking for tools or narcotics that had been either accidentally buried or deliberately planted during construction.

"So that we know when we start off we have an absolutely clean site."

Under-floor heating was confined to the accommodation units, and Mr Dalziel said this was the most energy efficient option for heating.

It was durable and offered safety and security features that other heating options did not have. It was expected to last 50-100 years, so the return on investment was sound.

While Mr Dalziel acknowledged television sets existed within the compound, these were used for training programmes or for group recreational use as a privilege that had to be earned.

It was possible for prisoners to furnish their unit with a television set, but these had to be either given by families or purchased by the prisoners themselves.

Inmates did get paid for labour inside the grounds, which included work in the laundry, kitchen and textile manufacturing. Rates of pay varied between 20c and 60c an hour.

Nearby Te Kauwhata will be one of the main bases for the hundreds of staff who will work at the prison.

Local man Graham Stevenson said the township's reaction to the prison plans was initially negative, but more recently the community had woken up to the benefits it would bring.

"Initially people threw their hands up in horror. It's only a little town here but young people will settle here and have their kids going to the schools, and their spending will help the shops.

"It won't bring prisoners into town, it's secure, but it will bring people into town. It's not going to do anything but good for this community."

Mr Stevenson said the Te Kauwhata Emergency Services Trust would benefit from the department's one-off invitation for the public to view and stay in the prison for a night on October 27.

Successful applicants would be issued with standard prison garb, and meals would be the same as inmates would receive.

"You will be photographed with your prisoner number, and will get to keep the ID as a souvenir. A specially designed T-shirt will also be available for you to wear."

The cost of building the prison was $380.3 million, the department said.

In 2001 the prison's cost was projected at $188 million, but this ballooned to $250 million by the end of 2004. At that stage more than $38 million had been spent on earthworks, plus $1.3 million on iwi consultation.

By the time of the May 2006 Budget, the prison's cost was estimated at $282 million, and in July last year costs were again revised upwards, to the current figure.

The department said in December 2004 it had been caught short by the national building boom and, unable to find the equipment in New Zealand, forked out for machinery from overseas.

It spent $7.5 million buying and shipping earthmoving equipment from Scotland, the US, France and South Korea.

A deal was struck with the equipment suppliers which allowed the department to sell the equipment back (minus an undisclosed percentage) afterwards.

SPRINGHILL PRISON

What
The country's newest prison, opening today with 51 buildings for 650 prisoners.

Where
A few kilometres south of Meremere on a 215ha site.

When
The first prisoners start arriving in November.

How much
The whole project cost $380.3 million.

Other useful information
The prison will have 632 toilets, 4300 lights, 15km of pipes and ducts and 500km of electric cable.

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