At Mt Eden there are two prisons. The modern, new facility is run on the hope of a private company while the abandoned gothic building stands as a relic of how the state once saw punishment. The troubles in the new prison come 50 years after a destructive riot at the old stone jail. Although this anniversary has gone unnoticed, the incident is best not forgotten.
In early July 1965, Daniel MacMillian and Jonassen Sadaraka planned an escape from a prison mired in repressive conditions and maladministration. Their plan was simple and involved a handgun, crudely made keys and violence.
A visitor smuggled in a six-shooter and 50 rounds, a staggering amount of ammunition that would soon be decisively trumped by 180 armed troops.
On July 17, a prisoner asked a guard to pass a newspaper to another prisoner in another cell. The guard found a coded note in its pages. Unable to decipher the message he simply copied it for the file. Inexplicably, he then delivered the newspaper and its mysterious contents.
The note in fact spoke of a planned "trip" and "cell keys". Handmade keys to open the cell doors had been available in the jail for years, and recently changed locks had proven no more effective than the old ones. If that note had been successfully read, what occurred next would have been avoided.
On the evening of July 19, a prisoner with a key released MacMillian and Sadaraka before locking himself back in his cell. At 2am the armed men confronted a guard on a regular patrol and bashed him with an iron bar. A colleague became a second hostage. Sadaraka fired a shot to show the escapers meant business. Two more shots were fired as the prisoners realised the keys they had gained from the two guards could not open doors to freedom. On the other side of those locked doors, the officer in charge called police.
The escape was effectively over and the trouble was just beginning.
The frustrated prisoners headed to where some of New Zealand's most hardened prisoners were kept, releasing four of them, including Bassett Rd machine gun murderer John Gillies and famous escaper George Wilder. These men had been kept in solitary confinement, with just two hours outside their cells each day.
Criminologist Greg Newbold has said it is only in light of these "mind-destroying" conditions that the violence to follow can be understood. The prisoners began smashing up the central office and set it on fire at the same time other prisoners were being unlocked.
The fire wasn't viewed as being terribly serious. It took two hours to call the fire brigade. The stone building would not burn, it was reasoned, but the thick oil paint on the walls did. And so did the ceilings. And the chapel. The jail was in flames and unlocking prisoners quickly became less revolt and more life saving.
What the Herald would later call a "wild orgy of destruction" ensured firefighters entering the jail were forced to retreat. This distraction did, however, provide a chance for the two hostages to escape.
At that point the fire, like the violence, was out of control. The prison was surrounded by police and firefighters. The prisoners, fleeing the smoke, managed to make it outside to the yard. As the morning sun came up, it dawned cold and it started to drizzle. Prisoners raided the kitchen and cooked over an open fire in the yard outside. Some remained defiant, burning and breaking.
A small group, including infamous career criminal Ron Jorgensen, attempted to gain concessions about the conditions at Mt Eden but no quarter was given and by the next morning the prisoners surrendered a prison that was wrecked and uninhabitable. In the days following, however, disorder spread like a disease to other institutions, most notably to Mt Crawford and Christchurch Men's Prison, the latter resulting in another fire and dozens of injuries.
The issues in Mt Eden in 1965, as is the case now, did not happen in isolation. This is not a matter of bad people behaving badly. If that were the case such incidents would be widespread. They are not.
These situations arise due to management of particular institutions. The specificities of then and now differ but the principle remains identical: management and conditions have influence.
We reap, as they say, what we sow.
Moreover, the spread of violence after that riot speaks to the interconnectedness of prisons. Though it won't be as dramatic, what is accepted in Mt Eden today will creep into other institutions as prisoners are transferred from one to the other. As a remand facility, Mt Eden is a gateway to prisons around the country.
Finally, small signs of concern can mask much bigger problems. In 1965 it was a coded note, in 2015 video clips of a "Fight Club". Prisons can be powder kegs; we ignore small signs of trouble, and history, at our peril.