Condemned jail outlasts the critics

By Arnold Pickmere

By ARNOLD PICKMERE

At least six people committed suicide at Mt Eden Prison in the 21/2 years to the end of 1999.

In the decade to the end of 1998 it was the scene of at least six of the 11 suicides by teenage inmates in adult jails.

One trouble is that the forbidding prison now contains many comparatively harmless people behind its stone walls - people on remand (presumed innocent, awaiting trial), young people, or those having trouble with our immigration laws.

When Corrections Minister Matt Robson said this week that he wanted Mt Eden to go, he joined a line of prison critics dating back to 1927.

In 1950, for example, Justice Minister Thomas Webb said he would "throw all his weight" behind moving the prison from Mt Eden.

He was responding to an outburst in Parliament by the Labour MP for Timaru, the Rev Clyde Carr, that the prison was "positively medieval."

"Almost Stone Age," agreed the legendary Bob Semple, Labour MP for Miramar.

The prison stayed. One of Mr Webb's successors as Justice Minister, future Prime Minister Jack Marshall, said in 1957 that he would get rid of the prison "tomorrow" if he could, and in 1998 the Corrections Minister at the time, Nick Smith, also wanted it to go.

What, then, are the chances of the century-old jail closing sometime soon?

The new $40 million Auckland Central Remand Prison, housing about 250 remand inmates, will open in July, right next to Mt Eden. It will help.

And the Government wants to push ahead with another prison in South Auckland and is working to establish one near Kaikohe. These projects are attracting opposition, including from the Nimby ("Not In My Back Yard") types. This is no new problem.

Being right next to Mt Eden undoubtedly lessened the hurdles for the new Auckland prison.

But Mt Eden Prison itself might not have made it had it been built somewhat later.

In 1940, the Mayor of Auckland, Sir Ernest Davis, wanted it moved. "Modern practice is to have prisons away from centres of population," he told the Herald.

"Time was when the present site of Auckland's jail was on the outskirts of the city. Now it is on the inner approach to one of our finest residential suburbs. I think it should be removed to an outer area away from the busy town life.

"If the jail were situated in open country it could be better-guarded, it could be made self-supporting and it would impart an isolation influence on its inmates which, in spite of lock and key, the jail in its present position does not give."

About the same time the Mt Eden Borough Council also wanted the prison moved. It said that if that was not possible the name should be changed, so that people "as far south as Invercargill" would not insist on calling it Mt Eden Prison.

The Mayor of Mt Eden, Mr R.J. Mills, told a meeting: "Here we have a beautiful suburb which has to bear the stigma of having a prison named after it."

And there was the curious position of Auckland Grammar School. Generations of pupils could watch through the barbed wire the prisoners working in the prison quarry.

In 1948, after stone fragments from the quarry blasting narrowly missed a member of the school staff, the prison superintendent promised to double the strength of the blasting plates laid over the charges.

And he asked the headmaster to notify him when parades or sports fixtures were being held in the school grounds. He would then delay blasting until the fixtures were over. (The school later acquired the quarry grounds for sports fields, compensation for land lost for adjacent motorway works.)

Mt Eden Prison today is still often full, despite the medium and maximum security facilities and other services now operating at Auckland Prison at Paremoremo. This modern but still forbidding institution holds 585 inmates.

Mt Eden today is still labelled barbaric, with people crammed into bathroom-sized cells, alone or doubled up.

Some still have to use buckets as toilets. The rest have lavatories alongside their beds and recreation is walking around a concrete yard covered with razor wire.

And it is an institution with a grim past. In 1945, in an article headed "Inside the gaol. Facts for the public," the Herald said the prison was not representative of New Zealand jails. It was a penal institution occupying much the same place in the Dominion's prison system as Dartmoor in England.

"It houses, among others, men serving long sentences, habitual criminals and types of prisoner who have been judged unsuitable for detention in reformatory institutions and on prison farms."

In those days a new prisoner was assigned two sets of clothing. He was issued one and returned this for laundering at the end of the week, when he got the other. Each set was numbered so the prisoner retained the same sets during his sentence.

Socks were changed twice a week.

A bed kit included a straw mattress, four blankets and sheets. Men serving short sentences usually had a hammock hung by heavy ropes between the walls "considerably larger than the type of hammock issued to fighting men in the Navy."

Prisoners serving longer sentences were allowed a canvas stretcher or spring bed with pillow.

The cells had a small, barred window for daylight and at night were lit until 9 pm.

Sanitary arrangements were of the "most primitive kind." Prisoners were able to wash at outside facilities after a day's work but there was also an enamelled basin and dipper of water in the corner of each cell.

Food included bread, meat, potato, vegetables, oatmeal and small amounts of butter, salt, sugar and tea, all allocated on a set scale.

Prisoners heard the rising bell at 6.30 am and were given breakfast at 6.50, eaten solitary in the cell. They then tidied their cells before going to labour until noon. Lunch in cells. Labour again until 5 pm, when they were given dinner and locked up for the night. The silence bell was rung at 9 pm.

A common sentence was hard labour, which meant work in the quarry crushing stones. Lighter work included bootmaking for the Army, borstals and mental institutions, postmen's bags and satchels and large mailbags, clothing for various Government hospitals and institutions.

Some prisoners shaved only when they visited the prison barber at weekends, or when a fellow prisoner wielded a razor in the yard's exercise times.

Despite the dirty work for most, showers were allowed only on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

There were grades of close and solitary confinements, including "bread and water" treatment for offences against regulations.

Conditions have improved in modern times. But the prison is rooted in a bygone age. In 1955, Parliament heard that "because of the limited size of the enclosure at the prison where murderers are hanged, it is not possible to build a ramp up to the gallows in place of the 17 steps the condemned prisoner has to climb at present." This information from Jack Marshall in a reply to a suggestion from the Labour MP for Auckland Central, Bill Anderton, that a ramp would be in keeping with modern methods of hanging and would be more convenient to the execution of the law.

If the Government was to continue capital punishment, said Mr Anderton, there were plenty of open spaces where executions could be carried out and modern methods used.

Besides, if capital punishment was to be used as a deterrent, "why not have it out in the open?"

Capital punishment was finally abolished in New Zealand in 1961.

The challenge now is whether the new Corrections Minister can shut Mt Eden by 2003. The talk is of more prisons, more rehabilitations and electronic bracelets allowing home-served sentences.

A Herald special investigation found that the prison population nationwide, 5616 in 1998, is expected to be 8270 by 2010. Historically, inmate numbers have risen 3 per cent a year but increases since 1996 have been as high as 8 per cent.

Between 1987 and 1995 the percentage who had been convicted of violent offences increased from 44 to 60.

In the same period the number serving life sentences increased 69 per cent to 222, and those on preventive detention increased 270 per cent to 74.

And 60 per cent of the inmates in 1998 had been in prison at least once before. Will we manage without Mt Eden?

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 18 Dec 2014 21:00:52 Processing Time: 258ms