Mt Eden prison, Auckland

Updated: Sep 6, 2021

Journey though one of New Zealand's most notorious prisons.



I was fortunate enough to have access granted to the old prison three times, twice at night, this is unprecedented as the old prison is on the new prison grounds so security is extremely tight.


A little history


The original Mount Eden prison was a military stockade built in 1856. It became Auckland's main prison when the old city jail on the corner of Queen and Victoria Streets was demolished in 1865. The stone wall and the foundations were completed in 1872, the building proper was commenced in 1882 and finished in 1917.

Intended to house 220 prisoners, it was designed by Pierre Finch Martineau Burr ows and resembles Dartmoor Prison in England. Its design cons'isted of wings radiating from the centre like the spokes of a wheel. This allowed for control from the centre and "anew mode of obtaining power of mind over mind", an application of the panopticon prison design theories of Jeremy Bentham.

The prison has a colourful history. Prisoners were executed there and it was the site of New Zealand's last execution, in 1957 when Walter James Bolton was hanged for poisoning his wife Beatrice. There were few escapes but a song was written about one famous escaper, George Wilder. In 1963, he escaped and was free for 172 days, during which time he travelled 2,610 kilometres (1,620 mi) and committed 40 crimes.

There was a major riot on 20 and 21 July 1965. Prisoners rioted for 33 hours after a prison guard caught two prisoners trying to escape. New Zealand SAS troopers and NZ Army Gunners were brought in to help quell the mayhem and reinforce NZ Corrections staff and NZ Police officers. Chaos ensued as prisoners burnt much of the prison, including the prison records. The old prison has been given a "Category I" classification by Heritage New Zealand. {from Wikipedia}


I am not going to discuss the deep history of the prison nor will I go into the different sightings and stories that were told by the staff as all the news outlets and writers regurgitate this on their platforms, instead I will talk of my experience and feelings from the short time I was privileged enough to be allowed here.


 

How it came about


I was informed of an article in a local paper about why the old prison was unable to be repurposed and I found the idea of photographing and visiting a place with such a dark past interesting. I made a few phone calls and discovered corrections had arranged a tour for a few local TVNZ news stations. so I requested to be part of it as a freelance photographer for an international agency. I went to the tour held during the day and after speaking with a very large tattooed prison guard who mentioned even to walk past the entrance to the old prison at night made him uneasy peaked my curiosity.

The sceptic in me wanted to see if the stories were true, the ghost sightings in the old death row, the noise from a disconnected speaker and several other claims that circulated. I got on very well with the head of the guards, a lovely Maori lady (name withheld) and when I put in a request for a night visit she got wind of my request and helped get it approved. I was fortunate enough to be granted two night visits from the hours of 6pm-4am.Needless to say I was excited and soon set a date for the first visit.



 


THE PRISON


To get to the prison you have to go through what I can only describe as an airport like security check with X-ray for bags and a physical search. I then had to hand a list of all items I carried from memory cards to wallet. Once through I was escorted by two prison guards to the front gates of the old prison, through the gates and confronted with a towering castle like building made of stone with random weeds growing through cracks in the concrete. It reminded me of a scene from the game of thrones. The rather ominous looking building is softened by a tree in the front covered in pink blossoms which mellowed the masses of razor wire, security fencing and cold grey stone.






 



The colour scheme is pretty bland as you would expect with the bars painted a dark blue with cream and pale blue coloured walls, the cells have a pale pastie looking blue on the beds, window and door surrounds and the hand rails that run the length of the prison wings. At the end of one wing there is painting of a Maori woman carrying a child on her back and draped in a korowai (cloak), a garment woven with feathers and steeped in history, tradition and cultural significance, worn by Maori on special occasions.





 



Prisons are built to house and punish criminals and as one would expect there are no creature comforts. The toilets that are in each cell are stainless steel with no toilet seat and a tiny basin to wash up with. The walls in the cells have been plastered in a way that prevents drawing on them easily. Everything about the cells is depressing. The colours in the cells would be enough to make me crazy after a few months living in one, cold barren and basic, this prison is a reminder of an archaic past and was designed to install fear and one can only assume hopelessness in the prisoners. In the final years before this prison was decommissioned there were protests. One of the more famous ones was a rooftop siege in 1994 where two prisoners climbed a tower and one stayed for 13 days before being overwhelmed by prison guards that jumped him from a platform that was suspended from a crane. There is video footage of the final moments from TVNZ here https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/new-zealand/back-in-the-day-dramatic-end-to-prison-roof-siege-6061598


{JOHN SELKIRK/FAIRFAX NZ}





 


NIGHT


At night the prison felt less intimidating to me; the darkness made the place feel warmer in a strange way, kind of how rain on a tin roof feels when tucked up in bed on a stormy winters night, like a cloak that made the cold edges a little less dominant.

I spent some time in the yards at night looking at the shadows the razor wire and mesh made on the walls, the sounds of the motorway traffic softly echoed around the yard. The gang graffiti that may have seemed important at the time it was done, for me, was akin to a drawing a troubled kid at college might scrawl on the cover of an exercise book.

We walked the hallways and the wings of the old prison and I had the two guards take me to “death row” where I closed myself in one cell known to house the prisoners before they were walked out to the gallows and was meant to house “the ghost”. It was cold and dark and I was alone and yet to my disappointment no such aberration appeared. I set tea candles in the cells on death row and had the lights to the entire prison shut down so I could play, using only torch and candlelight to paint comfort into the darkness.

Some of the stories of ghosts and strange noises from one of my guides who used to work in the prison before it was shutdown, were very interesting. But the conversations about the day to day reality of this old prison while we wandered the wings carried a far more sinister feeling. Some cells the guard that had worked here refused to go in, and I learnt of some very harsh realities guards and prisoners faced that I will not repeat here.









 

PRISON ART



I have little doubt there were some talented artists that have been through this prison. That is evident by some of the images painted on the interior of the different wings, the visitor area and in the small recreation area where Lord of the Rings characters seem to be a dominant theme. But the graffiti on the walls in the yard and in some holding cells are more akin to finger painting. Gang logos are drawn on walls which could perhaps indicate ownership of an area and inmates names are tagged all over the walls.








 



The truth for me in the end was this walk through a harsh and somewhat shadowed piece of New Zealand’s darker history, reminded me of the measures needed to be taken to keep some form of law and order. It was also made clear to me the lie the New Zealand government must have told itself and the people every time a protest was made, as this place was only just fit for living. With its weeping walls and lack of heating or any form of comfort, this place would have breed contempt and in my mind I just can not see how you would not leave a place like this full of anger and distain for authority.

I would hazard a guess that any man walking out of this place would be far more of a threat to society than when they went in. Of course there are exceptions to that rule but the average man sent in on a random burglary conviction might well leave a lot colder in heart and far more dangerous than when he went in.

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