Highly educated and a devoted father and husband, Dr Paul Wood's past isn't immediately obvious.
But his job is now devoted to that past.
Aged 18, as an unemployed high school drop out who was dependent on drugs, he was committing crimes to feed his habit.
While struggling with the death of his mother, Wood killed his 42-year-old drug dealer after he attempted to sexually assault him. Wood was convicted of murder and served 11 years in prison.
Another convicted killer, John Barlow – sentenced in 1995 for murdering Eugene and Gene Thomas – was among other prisoners who encouraged the teenager to educate himself behind bars.
Wood, now 42, became the first person in New Zealand's history to progress through undergraduate and masters degrees while in prison, completing his MA in psychology in 2005 with Massey University. He was also the first person to begin a doctorate while incarcerated.
He was released from prison in 2006 and in 2011 graduated with a PhD in differential psychology. Barlow attended his graduation.
Wood now lives in Wellington with his wife Mary-Ann - who he met after his release at a mutual friend's Christmas gathering - and their sons Braxton, 4, and Gordy, 1.
He works as a motivational speaker and workshop facilitator for companies and individuals. He's a patron for START Taranaki, which specialises in turning around the lives of at-risk young men, and he regularly visits prisons to talk about his past.
His wife is completing her own masters degree in sport and exercise science.
In an extract from his new book, How to Escape From Prison, Wood tells how he turned his life around.
The most unusual prisoner I met on remand was John Barlow. Whereas most of my fellow inmates were young, dark-skinned and uneducated, John was older, Pākehā, and refined and wellspoken enough to suggest good schools and likely even university in his background.
John was serving a life sentence for the murder of two Wellington businessmen whom he was alleged to have shot in their inner-city office for reasons that the police had never quite been able to explain.
Like just about everyone else in prison, John claimed to be innocent, but in his case there were real grounds to believe him. He was on remand awaiting his third trial; the first two had ended in hung juries. You would have thought someone like him would be mincemeat in jail, but John had got by.
For one thing, despite his age, he was quite tall and powerfully built. For another, he was a very astute manager of personalities and relationships. He'd managed to forge cordial ties with some of the KPs — the big gang guys, the King Pins — through sheer force of personality. Not only that, but he quickly recognised those guys for the intelligent men they usually were, and he had a surprising amount in common with them.
Sure, he'd been attacked once or twice, but by the time I met him he was an accepted, even valued member of the prison community, if you can call it that. He was kind to me from the outset, although I was probably standoffish. There were two reasons for this. First, he seemed so different from everyone else, including (by virtue of his age and education) me — he simply wasn't relevant to me at all.
And second, I had by now learned that acts of kindness were to be treated with the most profound suspicion in prison. It was many years before I learned the proverb "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts", but I saw plenty of evidence of its wisdom. An example. Shortly before [fellow inmate] Mugshot's spectacular exit from the wing, I was hanging out with him and [fellow inmate] Stand, who was facing his second conviction for grievous bodily harm. He'd originally been moved to Mount Crawford [former Wellington prison] from Rimutaka after being involved in a serious attack over there, and now he'd stabbed someone. Stand and Mugshot had been smoking pot with a Māori dude they vaguely knew, who had the distinction of having "Trust No C***" tattooed on his neck.
This guy — let's call him "TNC" — was from the other side of the prison, the side for those who had been sentenced. Stand asked after some people he knew who had been shifted from remand to the sentence side. TNC started making derogatory racial remarks about the Pākehā inmates in question, and it pissed Stand and Mugshot off. After they'd gone their separate ways, Stand and Mugshot decided to take TNC out. So they started hanging out more with TNC. They showed no animosity towards him. On the contrary: to all appearances, they were the best of mates. The one thing people in jail aren't short of is time, so those planning revenge or pre-emptive violence are happy to play the long game.
The kicker came when Mugshot casually suggested to TNC he join him and a few others smoking pot in the hobbies room. It was universally known that there was a spot in the hobbies room that wasn't covered by the CCTV surveillance cameras, and this was a popular spot to do drug deals and use drugs. It was also one of the best places in the prison to beat the s*** out of people, which is what happened to TNC.
This kind of fake friendship is typical, so you learn fast to be wary of kindness. Nothing is free, or without strings attached or fishhooks embedded. Trust No C***. I remember thinking at the time: he should have taken his own advice.
was hanging with [fellow inmate] Samson one day in his cell, smoking dope, when he scrunched up a ball of paper.
"What d'you reckon, Paul? You're a smart guy. If I drop this ball of paper and this tennis ball from the same height at the same time, which one will hit the ground first?"
I stared at him. It had to be a trick question. I might have been stoned, but I knew the answer was obvious. Of course the heavier object, the tennis ball, would hit the ground first. I told him as much.
"Want to bet on it?" he grinned.
"Go on then. Drop them," I said.
He held up the tennis ball and the scrunched-up paper and paused for effect, so I could see for myself they were at the same height. Then he dropped them. They hit the ground at exactly the same time. My head was spinning. There had to be a trick.
"Gimme those," I said.
I was expecting there to be a concealed weight in the balled-up paper, but I could feel there was a significant difference in mass: the tennis ball was heavy, the paper was light. When I tried the experiment for myself, the result was exactly the same.
"Wow," drawled Samson, enjoying my bewilderment. "Nearly 400 years after its first demonstration, inmate Paul Wood discovers the Galilean principle of gravity."
It seems a little thing, but in the scheme of things, it was huge. It was the first time I could remember one of my unshakeable convictions about the world and how it worked being proven false.
And I kid you not when I tell you that this was like a magic trick to me! It literally blew my mind and I spent considerable time that day trying to find heavier and heavier things to drop in place of that tennis ball, in case it was some kind of trick. That first shake was followed by significant aftershocks.
If I was wrong about something I had accepted without question, how many other things might I be wrong about?
One of the things that distinguished the Hole in the Wall gang from other criminals was that they were all highly intelligent. The ring-leader, Simon Allen Kerr, could have been a professional artist, or just about anything else he chose. Samson could have done anything, too: he scored at Mensa Club levels in intelligence tests. Unfortunately for society, both became addicted to the adrenaline, the lifestyle and the drugs that their criminal activity entailed.
Samson occasionally told me I should try to get some education. He wasn't the first. Back in Rimutaka, the man who I am calling Niccolo had one day seen me in the exercise yard, pen in hand, frowning at a newspaper. "What you doing there, Paul?" he said. I showed him the Word Find I was doing. He made an impatient noise. "What you want to waste your time on s*** like that for? Do something that gives you useful knowledge."
John Barlow, too, had often told me I should use my time in prison wisely and try to better myself. Trouble was, these seeds of wisdom fell on barren ground at the time. I simply wasn't ready to listen to pro-social advice.
Coming from Samson, however, who at this stage in my life was one of the coolest people I knew, the suggestion was food for thought. He would set riddles for me, things like: What is lighter than a feather but the world's strongest man can't hold for long? Answer: His breath.
Sometimes I could figure them out for myself. Sometimes I would need help. He also recommended books for me to read, and some of these had a profound influence on me at that time. One was Jack Henry Abbott's In the Belly of the Beast, an autobiographical account of the author's time in America's hardest maximum security institutions.
Abbott was doing it way harder than me, but he found time to read philosophy and to write his own book. He quoted philosophy — by Friedrich Nietzsche and others — and what he quoted struck a chord. I realised with a shock that there were philosophies and philosophers I might be interested in.
Even if I couldn't entirely follow the arguments, I could definitely relate to the big questions they were grappling with, and see their relevance not only to Abbott's situation but also to my own. They didn't change my life overnight, but exposure to these questions changed it in the end.
I spent a bit of time with [fellow inmate] Moppy in his cell going through the dictionary, quizzing one another as to the meaning of this apparently obscure word and that. And in the meantime, acting on Samson's suggestion, I eventually made an appointment to see the prison's education provider — an underworked man, if ever there was one.
He had been a screw, but he seemed all right, and genuinely supportive of my desire to improve myself, at least in principle. He got me to sit a test, presumably to work out whether it was a waste of time giving me permission to study. My literacy was pretty average, but he was satisfied with the results.
My routine was that I would mow the lawns in the morning and in the afternoons I would study. I would be stoned most of the time, while mowing and studying, and on the weekends I would see [former girlfriend] Tania and shoot either morphine or methadone.
The syringes smuggled into prison would generally be reduced in size by cutting down their barrel, and while hypodermic needles are supposed to be used only once before they are disposed of, they are repeatedly used in prison. When they become blunt and painful to use, they are simply sharpened by scraping them gently against the striker of a matchbox.
When I had morphine tablets to use, I shot morphine. Most often, however, Tania would bring methadone, which is usually supplied by pharmacies diluted with water so it can be taken orally. Tania would cook it down to concentrate the opiate and remove the water, which made it not only easier to smuggle but also more effective to inject.
Even so, it would still require several injections to deliver the whole dose. While the effects were not as intense as those of morphine, they lasted longer — a couple of days instead of a few hours. It was only when I was high on opiates, leaning back enjoying the buzz and listening to music, that I could bear prison. Under the circumstances, it's a miracle I managed to produce anything resembling academic work at all. It wasn't just the drugs.
At first, I had to try to settle down and work in my cell, and I had no appreciation whatsoever of what was required of a university essay. I still smile (and cringe) to recall my first assignment, which I handwrote in capitals because I imagined it would be easier to read. I had little grasp of grammar, and less of punctuation.
I also wrote the whole thing as a single block of text because I didn't really understand what constituted a sentence or paragraph. The marker would have known from the return address to which they sent the marked assignment where I was, even if they likely had little or no idea what it was like in prison. Bless them if they didn't restrict themselves to the gentlest of constructive criticism and display sufficient generosity to give me a pass (50 per cent exactly).
After a while, the authorities allowed me to go to the programmes facility — a block where inmates undertook nonviolence and drug rehabilitation courses — to work. Here, I was given access to a little room with a computer on which I could write my essays. There wasn't any internet access, but as I'd never seen the internet, it wasn't missed.
A very nice civilian lady named Catherine was in charge of programmes at this time, and she was very supportive and encouraging. There was also a Catholic nun who was usually about. Sister Marie Roche was part of the prison chaplaincy.
I wasn't in the slightest bit religious, and I was narrow-minded enough back then to doubt the motives and mental stability of such people. Sister Marie was way different to the stereotypes I had of nuns. She didn't wear a habit and she didn't walk about spouting the gospel. Instead, she was dressed in nondescript civilian clothes and was nothing but kind and supportive. One day, not long after our first meeting, she breezed in while I was there and set a fragrant paper bag down on the desk.
"I brought you some lunch, Paul," she said. "Hope you like KFC."
This was an unbelievable treat, yet I'm sure I sat there with a look of profound suspicion on my face. She didn't demand I repent my sins or attend church or do anything whatsoever in return. It was an act of kindness, pure and simple, and as such, it was another of those Galilean gravity moments.
I was lucky enough to have a lot more to do with Sister Marie over the remainder of my sentence, and never failed to be moved by her generosity, sincerity, and intellectual flexibility.
I have no doubt that both of them, Catherine and Sister Marie, had a role to play in turning me away from the dead-end path I had been on and toward rehabilitation. The power civilians have to positively influence those in prison is massive. A non-judgemental interaction with someone who treats you like a human being helps shift the belief that you are an unworthy and irredeemable person who will never be accepted by other members of society when released.
How to Escape From Prison
By Paul Wood
Out July 1