A new book, Behind Bars, by Herald journalist Anna Leask, reveals life inside New Zealand prisons from those who know it best. These two extracts — from a female inmate and a guard — illustrate a world most people will never experience.

The new mum inmate

When they locked her up for the first time her baby girl wasn't even two months old.

The day she went to court for sentencing she couldn't bear to bring her daughter with her. She didn't want her last goodbye to be fraught and emotional; she didn't want to break down and scream for her baby as they led her out of the dock and into the cells.

So she got up that morning, fed the baby and put her down to sleep in her cot. As she walked out of the room she stopped and looked back at the girl, her tiny body wrapped up warm, the blankets moving as she breathed and her little face so peaceful. She took a deep breath, turned around and walked out of the room, the house and out of her baby's life for God knows how long.

Hours later, Elaine Ngamu, aged 20 and a mother of two, was sentenced to prison for fraud. She'd been caught using stolen credit cards and pleaded guilty at the outset - she knew she'd done wrong and she wanted to get the punishment over and done with so she could focus on her children.

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But it hurt so much being away from them, not being able to cuddle her baby girl or kiss her 3-year-old son. It was a pain she still has trouble finding the words to describe. At Mt Eden they asked her if she was still breastfeeding her baby. Yes, she said. They asked her, in a way that put utter fear into her, if the baby would be in "danger" staying at home being bottle-fed.

"No! She'll be fine," Ngamu told the guards, convinced that if she said the opposite the kids would be taken away from her partner, shoved into foster care with strangers.

It was the wrong answer, Ngamu would later find out.

If she'd said she wanted to keep breastfeeding she would have been kept in Auckland, the baby brought to her a few times a day. She would have had regular contact with her infant. Instead, she was on the next flight to Wellington to do her time at Arohata Prison, 650km away from everyone she knew and loved.

"It was so horrible. My daughter had a gastro problem for about three weeks just before I went into prison. I kept having to rush her to the doctor . . . I was fortunate that my family stepped in to look after her, but I just spent all my time worrying.

"Going to Arohata made things really hard. I got a phone call twice a week but you never knew when it would come. They would just call out, 'Right, all the Auckland girls, you're getting a call,' and we'd have to queue up and wait. I would just hope like hell someone would answer at home so I could speak to them, make sure the kids were all right.

"My younger sister moved in and she cared for the baby. She was pregnant at the time, and it was so traumatic for my baby that when she had hers, she gave it to another sister to look after and she stayed at my place with my daughter.

"My partner was also there, looking after the kids, and he would bring my 3-year-old down to visit me a couple of times a month. I was one of the lucky ones in prison. I knew that they were all okay and I only had to look after myself, keep myself alive. But I still missed them like crazy."

The guard

His mates had secured jobs at the local prison, and when they suggested he join them, he thought, 'Why not?' Plus, they needed a prop for the prison rugby team, so there was a sporting advantage in taking a job on the inside. He was 21 when he became a prison guard - a "screw" to those on the other side of the bars - and he did 17 years in the job, spending his days amid the worst society had to offer.

Beven Hanlon. 'There were tattoos all over every face - and not nice tattoos - these guys were all about intimidating each other.'
Beven Hanlon. 'There were tattoos all over every face - and not nice tattoos - these guys were all about intimidating each other.'

Beven Hanlon showed up to work on his first day at Hawke's Bay Prison not knowing what to expect. He was nervous - he was about to enter a world he'd never been part of, a hard world full of hard people.

He knew that he had to stay on top of the nerves and fear, that if the inmates knew he was scared of them he'd be targeted, seen as soft, weak.

Ironically, Hanlon's qualms and fears were similar to those of the rookie inmates. Having worked for many years as a pub bouncer, Hanlon wasn't new to the challenges of supervision and control, but alcohol-fuelled idiots were a world away from prison inmates. Today, all these years later and after countless hours spent walking the wings, opening and closing cells and checking thousands of inmates off his muster list, it's still that first shift that he best remembers.

"I was put on Unit 6, an 80-bed minimum-security unit that was pretty much full of Mongrel Mob - some really high-profile residents. The gang's sergeant-at-arms was in there and heaps of patches.

"It was a really dangerous unit where there were always stabbings, and just before I started one guy was almost beaten to death. I got told that's where I was going and I headed off to meet the officer in charge for a briefing. We spoke about how the compound was quite dangerous and I was told I was to make sure that I was never in there on my own - ever.

"The OIC told me there was one particular guy I needed to keep away from, a guy called Yogi, a big Mobster and the top dog, who'd recently been recaptured after breaking out of jail. While he was out on the run he'd kidnapped a police officer and put him in the boot of his car and shot him in the face, then he almost killed a Black Power president by putting a hand weight through the back of his head. I was happy to steer clear of him.

"I walked into the unit for the first time and it was like walking into a whole other world. There were tattoos all over every face - and not nice tattoos, they said Mongrel Mob, Sieg Heil - these guys were all about intimidating each other. There were a number of different chapters in there and they hated each other, even though they were all Mobsters. They were all growling and barking at each other; it was hilariously funny, like they had their own language - but of course I didn't laugh.

"Then I saw a guy I knew; I remembered him from school, he was the brother of one of my best mates and I used to stay over at their house a lot growing up. The other guards I was with, my partner, got called back to the control room and I was left out there on my own with this guy. I knew I wasn't supposed to be there alone but I was just chatting to this guy, I knew him and I felt okay.

"My radio started going off - I was being told to come back to the control room. I ignored it for a bit, carried on having a conversation with this guy. He looked a lot different than he used to, covered in tattoos, but he was still recognisable.

"We were catching up and I thought it was good that I was building up a bit of a rapport with him. Then I got called back into the office and the OIC tore strips off me. I can remember him saying, very clearly: 'I just bloody warned you about not talking to Yogi,' he shouted. It turns out the top dog of the wing, this most dangerous criminal, was my mate's brother. I had this impression of this big dangerous, angry dude and then it was just Alastair."

Behind Bars, by Herald senior crime and justice reporter Anna Leask, is available at major book retailers from Monday. (Penguin Random House, RRP $40).