David Fisher talks to former inmates about what life behind bars is really like

Endless time that doesn't belong to you - that's what prison is like, if you ask inmates.

It's also frightening, hopeless and violent. There are escapes, but only through booze, cigarettes and drugs. And there is hope, but the inmates who claimed to have found it also spoke of working hard to make sure they never wound up behind bars again.

The Herald spoke to prisoners who had served sentences for offences ranging from assault to selling drugs to murder. As the prisons inspectorate extends its inquiry into the violence at privately operated Mt Eden Correctional Facility, they revealed life on the inside.

For most, the day starts with cells unlocked about 7am-7.30am. Food is served on trays prepared by inmates who have earned a privileged place in the kitchen.

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At Auckland Prison, better known as Paremoremo, inmates say the food is uniformly average.

"I'm a white boy with hollow legs," said one former inmate sentenced for burglary and drugs.

"I eat a lot. It was okay but nothing special."

Across the country, the Department of Corrections budgets $4.50 a day to feed prisoners. It gets each inmate a lunch of vegetables, meat and a dessert. At dinner, there are cold meats and salads.

"I didn't get fat in prison, that's for sure - $5 a day doesn't buy a lot," says a former Paremoremo inmate who served his sentence for murder in prisons across the country.

Ohura prison was outstanding, thanks to the quality produce from its gardens. Vegetables not sent to market produced salads that were served with chicken and schnitzel in generous portions. However the prison is now closed.

The inmate recalls a content and focused prison population filled with "guys [who] wouldn't eat this well at home".

"But you wouldn't hear stories like that at many prisons. In other places, I've seen some nasty fights erupt over food."

Violence is frequent and often over petty matters - "a guy seriously maimed over a piece of toast", says the ex-inmate.

Outside the three square meals a day, access to food is a frustration. Inmates can order off an internal shopping list.

The burglary and drugs inmate: "It's all just shit - biscuits, chippies and noodles."

The unlocking of doors in the morning frees prisoners from the person with whom they had spent at least the previous 12 hours. Double-bunking was introduced from 2009 and was cited by every prisoner interviewed as a destructive, negative element of imprisonment.

Each cell gets a television - who chooses the channel?

"Who's the biggest?" says the inmate with the murder conviction. It creates a domestic relationship for half of every day in which the boundaries are established by threat of violence.

The inmate on burglary and drug charges describes the culture shock for a new inmate - they go into a cell with a person they have never met, someone who might beat them into submission as a form of greeting.

It happens, he says. But then, violence is a constant.

In Mt Eden prison, they call it 'The Contender' after the television series. In Paremoremo, it's called 'Fight Club' after the movie.

A prison first-timer who went to Mt Eden says: "The guards just look away. That fighting is an everyday occurrence."

They are claims which gained credence after the revelation a guard is under investigation for participating in the violence, an incident which Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga described as coaching of sparring techniques.

"That Minister of Corrections has no idea," says the inmate.

In an area covered by CCTV cameras, he says guards watched a friend dragged by other inmates into a cell where there were no cameras.

"They beat the shit out of him and made him clean up the blood."

The Corrections Department was investigating videos which appear to show organised fights inside Mt Eden Prison.
The Corrections Department was investigating videos which appear to show organised fights inside Mt Eden Prison.

In Paremoremo, the inmate sentenced for burglary and drugs says it is no different.

"Your name goes in a hat. If it gets pulled out you had to fight. Then the rumble is on." Inmates would watch and place bets on the outcome. "If you didn't fight, you got a hiding."

Inmates made shanks - deadly instruments created out of almost anything that will hold an edge or a point such as mop bucket rollers. Shanks are even made by grinding soap into powder to work into a paste. A newspaper is rolled into a tube, plastered with the paste and left to harden. "It might only work once or twice but at least you have something if they come into your cell."

But the violence rarely turns sexual, according to inmates.

Criminologist Greg Newbold, who spent time inside in the 1970s, said it was an unusual and defining aspect of our prison system. When compared to the New Mexico prison system, New Zealand matched up on many levels but not prison rape.

He was concerned the reportedly ultra-violent culture of Mt Eden prison might change this - and there were suggestions it was reports of rape inside the Serco-run prison that led to Corrections taking over.

Double-bunking had also disrupted the sexual rhythm of prison, inmates said.

"There's quite a stigma about jerking off if there's another guy in your cell," says one inmate.

Prisoner ingenuity shows how inmates get what they need or want - cannabis, Ecstasy, heroin, LSD and methamphetamine - to pass time.

"It's that easy to score it isn't funny. It's easier to get it in there than it is on the outside," says the inmate with burglary and drug convictions.

Tobacco, banned in 2011, is also available. Instead of stubbing out smoking inside, the move created a new and valuable commodity. A former inmate described the process of smashing up a 30g pouch of tobacco into a small cube so there are a multitude of ways for it to be smuggled inside.

That 30g pouch sells for $300 inside although the price can go up hugely. Another inmate talked of a 50g pouch of tobacco going for $1000. A thinly rolled cigarette can cost $10; a joint of similar size costs the same amount.

Those wanting a cheaper option can buy a full-strength nicotine patch for $40. Tea from a teabag is folded inside the patches and soaked in hot water. The nicotine-infused tealeaves are an awful-tasting but functional smoke.

Currency takes different forms. Phone cards are the easiest - they can be bought by inmates, brought in by visitors or sent through the mail. For those wanting the money in a safer place, there are TAB accounts. Phone calls to the outside see money transferred between accounts to settle debts. There is also family - if they have money, they could cover prison costs.

"Hooch" alcohol is brewed from a variety of ingredients. Marmite was favoured for its yeast and its ability to ferment and was then withdrawn. "The smart ones use bread and sugar and make vodka." It gets brewed in small milk containers, left behind heating rails to ferment over a week.

The exit from prison is described as so swift as to create culture shock.

"You ... get your Steps to Freedom [$350 grant]. Then they give you a two week stand-down when you come out. That's why a lot of guys reoffend. There is no support network after prison."

A spokesman for Social Development Minister Anne Tolley said work underway looked at linking former prisoners to work programmes and ending the requirement for a benefit "stand-down" waiting period.

Those interviewed by the Herald all talked of inmates they met inside who should not have been there.

"He would make a good husband, a good father," said a friend of Nick Evans, the Mt Eden inmate who died this year.

Another says: "Some of those guys I met in there, if they were given a chance, would be multi-millionaires on the outside."