One night in Rimutaka Prison

By Derek Cheng

Herald reporter Derek Cheng spent a night in Unit 11 at Rimutaka Prison, the country's first unit built from old shipping containers. He shares his diary...

2.30pm:

A prison officer shows Herald journalist Derek Cheng  his cell in the new container block, Unit 1, at Rimutaka Prison. Photo / Mark Mitchell
A prison officer shows Herald journalist Derek Cheng his cell in the new container block, Unit 1, at Rimutaka Prison. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Arrive at Rimutaka Prison, an intertwining mass of buildings and high fences topped in razor wire.

3pm

Piled into the cage in the back of a prison van with four other media and driven to the main guard house. Put into holding cell with graffitied walls.

3.30pm

Led to another cell and told to strip the top half. Corrections Officer admires my puffer jacket, and I offer him $50 to sneak it in to me. He declines.

He checks under my arms, in my mouth, under my tongue, behind the ears, up the nostrils, and then shows me what they usually ask the prisoner to do to check the anus and under the scrotum - popular hiding places - but thankfully I don't have to expose myself.

I would normally also have to lift up my fat folds, as it is another popular hiding place, but I'm unusually slim today and have no fat flaps.

He checks under my feet and then hands me standard issue grey sweats. Mine are covered in stains of white paint.

I keep my sneakers.

3.45pm

Led into a small room where an elderly gentleman with a balding head and glasses greets me and asks me if it's my first time in prison. This is the at-risk assessment. Is my family angry with me? Do I have a drug or alcohol problem? I say I enjoy the odd whiskey, and he says that's fine. He does too.

He asks if I have any cultural beliefs or diet rules that need attention, like a prayer mat, and I say I only eat chicken wings. He says he'll see what he can do.

As I leave, I'm handed my lunch - burger buns with egg and coleslaw. The lady tells me it's a chicken wing sandwich, but she's clearly lying.

4pm

Led to the main counter where they take my mug shot - no smiling - and tell me about my sentence and parole eligibility. I have a two-year sentence, apparently, so I automatically get released after one year. He says if there are any law changes that affect me, this is when he'd tell me.

I ask him what he thinks of the three strikes law that was passed last week, and he says: "long overdue".

But the staff member behind him says, while he agrees with it, he thinks it's wrong to scratch parole completely. Prisoners need some hope, he says, and if they have none, what's to stop them attacking him when they have nothing to lose.

4.10pm

Interview with nurse. The health check is proceeding normally - do you have any medical issues that we should know about?

I decide that I am an exceptionally boring prisoner, so concoct a story about being a heavy heroin user. She then asks me the last time I used, whether I was being treated, and a history of my use.

She takes my blood pressure - very good for a heavy drug user, she says - my sugar level to see if I am diabetic, my height and weight.

She takes a history of family health problems, such as blood clots or heart problems.

Do I have sex with men?

Who doesn't?

Have I been tested for STDs?

No

Have I gone overseas and had sex with sex workers?

Of course

Do I share needles?

I'm usually so out of it I honestly can't remember.

She says she would then recommend an appointment with a doctor, an STD test - which I can refuse - and a psychiatric test.

I ask her if she feels vulnerable at all, in a room with a prisoner out of it on drugs and potentially aggressive.

She says the guards keep a constant watch, and she felt more vulnerable working in the UK as a GP nurse than working for Corrections interviewing prisoners.

As she hands on my notes, she scribbles "compulsive liar" on the sheet.

5pm

Led through to the at-risk unit, where they bundle us into a prison van again and take us to Unit 11. By now it is dark outside and pouring with rain. Driven through the main gate and step out into a large recreational area. Basketball hoop. Grassy square. Cream-coloured container cells line the perimeter. High towers pour out light from each corner.

5.30pm

Introduced to the officers in the unit and given more forms to fill out - the rules of the unit, the laundry, phone cards, posting letters, the account that prisoners have and can use to buy things like cigarettes or phone cards.

Each prisoner has an account with up to $200 in it, and they can spend up to $70 a week. Every prisoner earns at least $2.70 a week, and more if they have work - such as cleaning the dining room or doing the laundry. The most an inmate earns is around $25 a week, the officers say.

Other information details what you can have in your cell: a 14-inch TV, a radio or CD player, books and magazines, board games.

And what you can't have: cellphones, blue tack, beanies, any gang paraphernalia, pornography, syringes, tin foil, yeast, chewing gum, hoodies.

Lock up time is from 8.30pm to 6.30am, as well as Friday afternoons during staff meetings from noon until 3pm.

6pm

Am shown my cell. Small, but not suffocating. There is a double bunk, an ensuite with a metal toilet and wash basin (no toilet seat), two chairs, bedding, a main light, some cubby holes, a cork board for pictures, some toiletries - toothbrush and toothpaste, razor, soap, shampoo, toilet roll, plastic cutlery.

As soon as I am in, I plot my escape, but within seconds see it is futile. The door is massive and solid, there is a window but with metal bars and smash-proof glass, and a small grate is the only fresh air that can come in.

I'd have to be the size of a pencil shaving to fit through the air vent. Even if I got out, I would need to scale the wall, climb under the roof, jump down, and then overcome four fences with razor wire before the real running even started.

No camera in the cell, but cameras can follow me anywhere as soon as I leave it. A curtain covers most of the window, except for a small segment which officers can look through to check on you.

6.30pm

Dinner. The same for every prisoner around the country. Tuesday night is mashed potatoes, carrots and cabbage, mince, and a kiwifruit. Two slices of bread. It's filling, but the officers tell us it's not always enough for Jabba-the-Hut-sized prisoners. Other nights they have fish and chips, chicken, pie and vegetables, spaghetti bolognaise, ham steaks.

There is a ping pong table and board games - draughts, cards, chess and scrabble for the more adventurous - and we play table tennis and drink tea. It's still raining.

8.30pm

Locked up. I make my bed. The heater is controlled by the main control room - the temperature is set to a cosy 24C. It's usually about 20C, I'm told, but we're soft journalists who might get cold. Some of the others try the emergency intercom, which makes the one in my room crackle and transmit bits of conversation.

I put up my curtain and sit back on the top bunk, taking notes and reading. Not much else to do.

9pm

Too much tea. Use the toilet. Flush works. Am still in one piece.

10.23pm

Someone in a different unit yells out "this is my house" repeatedly.

11pm

Officer opens the flap at the side of the window and looks in to see I am alive and haven't lost my mind. I wave back. They have to check on us within two hours at night, and do a muster count every hour during the day.

11.30pm

Lights out. Try to sleep. Am comfortable, warm, the pillow is soft and fluffy, the mattress cosy. But I can't sleep.

Midnight

On comes the blue light, which is what the staff use to check on you if your lights are out. They need to see movement, such as the rising and falling of the chest, before they tick you off. I wave again.

1am, 2.45am, 4am, 4.30am, 6am

Blue light checks. All of these wake me up, which is not surprising. If I were here for the long haul, I would either have to get used to this, or need an eye mask.

Dream about being in prison, but it's not frightening. It's relaxing. My brain is obviously still processing all the day's information.

6.30am

A key turns and the door is unlocked. I am awake already, though dead tired. I jump up, get changed, and head to the shower. Not communal.

There are two ablution blocks, each of six individual showers and one toilet.

The showers have two swing doors. I step into the first one and push the "shower" button. Some water spurts out, and then stops.

I exit wrapped in a towel and carrying my grey sweats, and enter the next shower. Works first time. The water warms quickly and I have my 4 minute 30 second shower.

6.40am

Step out of the shower to find my grey sweats have absorbed much of the water on the ground. I dress as Tim, from Radio New Zealand, steps into the next shower. I advise him to hang his clothes on the swing door to keep them dry, then as soon as he does, I pinch them and hand them to a corrections officer and ask him to take them to the laundry.

7.30am

Breakfast: weetbix, milk, sugar, three bits of toast, butter and jam. The toast was cooked at 4.30am and strongly resembles cardboard. But all edible. Play more ping pong. Drink more tea.

8.30am

Take off the grey sweats and put on normal clothes. Put into a normal van and driven out of Unit 11 to the main entrance. Am tired, but feel as though I could do time in Unit 11. With only five media there and with a ping pong table, basketball hoop and grassy area for touch rugby or soccer, it felt more like holiday camp.

Of course, it would be quite different with 60 prisoners, sharing a cell, and with a prison term of years. But the staff are very professional and well-trained on how to interact with prisoners and build rapport, without crossing the line into making friendships and doing favours, the first step to "getting got".

They do a challenging job in a difficult environment, and should be applauded.

The Corrections Department has to walk a fine line to have adequate facilities that are not too nice that they upset the hardliners, and not too cramped to upset the prison reform groups.

The container cells seem to fit that balance well. I've certainly stayed in worse places, but there is no doubt that your liberty has been curbed.

That feeling is deterrence enough to make me not want to revisit.

- NZ Herald

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