The cavernous receiving area at Mt Eden Prison is imposing. The clang of a heavy steel roller door bounces off the concrete walls, and uniformed guards stand ready to face whatever comes their way.

This is a place of numbers, where even a person becomes a number.

The condemned arriving in a convoy of vans are stripped of freedom, and sent to wait for the justice system to decide their fate. Remanded in custody at Mt Eden equals a life on hold.

Among the first things any arriving inmate will see is black pen scrawled on a whiteboard.

Today, most prominent, is a number: 1016.

It’s a headcount, known in the system as the prison muster. The 17 other prisons around the country will each have their own numbers. Together they’re added up to give the national prison muster.

To say that number has been growing is an understatement. In fact, in the past three weeks that sum has surpassed 10,000 for the first time. It's the grimmest of milestones.

It's the grimmest of milestones.

In this series examining the state of our prison system, Stuff Circuit has learned that we lock people up at a higher rate now than ever in our history. Violence right across the system is endemic - last year alone there were 1500 assaults. And the independent watchdog with oversight of our jails holds grave concerns about certain aspects of prison culture.

If jails are a reflection of society’s humanity, what do those facts say about us?

Ricky knows more about life on the inside than he does on the outside. “All up I’ve just finished my 50th lag,” he told us when we first met him.

Over the years, he’s seen everything there is to see in prison and knows the system. Drugs, alcohol, violence, corruption - all have been rife, he says. But he knows it’s not a message Corrections bosses will necessarily stomach.

“Someone like myself, you been in that many times you see a lot, you see a lot,” he says. “The big cheeses that run the prisons they might not see because they’re not on the floor seeing it all.”

A former gang enforcer, he has since tried to make amends for things he regrets.

“Especially for the people I’ve hurt. When I took my patch off I went to my victims to ask for forgiveness. Some didn’t want to know me, they thought I was there to give them another bashing.”

But when all you’ve known is a life on the inside, it’s hard to stay on the outside.

In the past few months, Ricky has been back inside.

A personification of those who churn through our prison system.

360 degrees We captured a 360 degree camera view of a prisoner transportation van. On desktop, drag around to explore. For the full experience on mobile, please download the YouTube app and access the video from here.

Since this is the story of an incarceration nation, it’s important to look back at where that started.

Auckland University sociologist Dr Tracey McIntosh points out that if we go right back to European settlement, there’s a long history of locking up Maori. “There was a desire to incarcerate significant numbers of our people,” she says.

It’s a salient point, given the fact that more than half of the prison population today, is Maori.

The recent rise in prison growth begins in the mid-1970s. The muster bounced around about 2800, a rate of about 90 per 100,000 people, before New Zealand embarked on a remarkable period of emptying out cells.

By 1985, the muster was down to 2200, a rate of 67 per 100,000. Consider that if this was our rate now, we’d be on a par with Scandinavian countries praised for their low imprisonment.

Instead, between the mid-80s and the mid-2000s, the number of prison sentences handed down jumped 47 per cent. By 2007 the prison muster was about 8300.

A focus on community sentences saw numbers flatten somewhat for the next few years.

But now, prisons are a growth industry again. And the rate of imprisonment is more than 200 per 100,000.

That means more prisons cells, more prison staff - 1800 more beds at a cost of $1 billion are on the way, and there’s a recruitment drive for 600 extra Corrections officers, extra staff for a department which is already the 15th biggest employer in the country.

Criminologist Dr Liam Martin, from Victoria University, says the expansion is linked directly to decisions being made on our behalf, as a country.

“The rhetoric for the past 30 or 40 years is, ‘we have to build another prison to meet expected rises in the number of people we incarcerate’. But it is the Government’s choices that mean the prison population is rising.

“Prison populations rise when you make choices that make them rise - restricting bail access which we’ve done recently, restricting parole, lengthening prisons sentences.”

Figures back up Liam Martin's words.

Bail: Changes to the bail laws in 2013 saw an immediate jump of 4 per cent in the number of people held in custody prior to trial or sentencing.

Parole: Only 23 per cent of people who applied for parole last year received it, whereas five years ago it was 31 per cent.

Prison sentences: The average length of a prison term in 2015 increased by two weeks on the previous year to 18 months and two weeks, a reflection of an upwards creep. In 1985 only five per cent of sentences were longer than two years - now 22 per cent are.

But before you blame the current Government, remember that law and order has been a theme for most political parties since the 1990s. “Tough on crime” became the political cliche de jour.

Throughout the 2000s, parties on the left and the right - Labour and Act - talked the tough talk.

And in the 2008 National Party campaign launch advertisement John Key claimed that “violent crime has gone through the roof”.

“One of National’s absolute priorities will be to crack down on violent crime, we’ll toughen the bail laws, sentencing laws and parole laws to keep violent offenders off our streets,” said Key.

When you look back at the law changes National has followed through on, you certainly couldn’t accuse him of breaking campaign promises.

But at what cost - especially when you consider violent crime continues to rise?

Sitting at a table in a cafe, Steven (not his real name) talks upbeat about the new business he is aiming to launch.

He hopes it will be the new start he needs. And, boy, does he need one.

The monitoring bracelet around his ankle is a clunky reminder of where he’s been. Until recently, he was in prison, serving a sentence of three years and nine months as a first-time inmate.

During that time, he stayed in eight different prisons, two of them run by private operator Serco. He is scathing of the private prison operator, partly because he believes a lack of staffing made him feel vulnerable.

In fact during his sentence, he was attacked three times. Once at Mt Eden, once at Rimutaka and the last time, at Auckland South Prison in Wiri, where he was set upon in his cell, almost losing the vision in one eye.

It was a scary place, one he is determined not to go back to.

There will be those who think an ex-prisoner being scared to go back to prison is a good thing. But is that really what we want of our society? One where institutions are based on fear?

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier, whose office has independent oversight of the prison system, is concerned.

He was devastated when the fight club scandal erupted last year, with footage of brutal prisoner bouts at Serco-run Mt Eden appearing on YouTube.

“You’ve got to have a country that relies on a notion that if a judge sends someone to prison, they’re going to be safe. You’ve got to have a civilised detention system,” he says.

“I think that Corrections is very single-minded in trying to do the best it can. I don’t want to be judgemental.” But his role was to guard against standards slipping.

“Because it’s so easy in this challenging, difficult climate for things to go wrong.”

Last year, there were about 1100 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, more than at any time in the past five years. Forty-five of those were serious. There were another 17 serious assaults on staff.

From all the coverage about Mt Eden last year, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a jungle compared to the other prisons. And yet when you do compare, Mt Eden doesn’t particularly stand out - especially when you consider it holds more prisoners than any other.

In 2013/14, there were five serious assaults by prisoners on other prisoners at Mt Eden. Christchurch had five too, Spring Hill six, and Rimutaka seven.

In fact, looking at the spread of serious assaults across the country, the only notable thing is that only one was at a women’s prison (Christchurch Women’s).

Peter Boshier, though, fears the number of assaults may be even greater.

“I think we’ve got cause for concern that we may not properly know the extent of what occurs in prisons.”

When you visit a prison, you see prominently on the walls signs with phone numbers for the confidential 0800 hotlines of the Corrections Department’s inspector and the Office of the Ombudsman.

And yet surveys carried out by the Ombudsman indicate there is a worrying under-reporting of assaults - as high as 84 per cent, at Invercargill Prison.

“I think that’s a shame - if prisoners don’t feel there’s a safe mechanism to report, that’s how you end up with Serco fight clubs,” says Boshier.

Rangi Kemara, one of the so-called “Urewera Four” who was jailed for firearms offences, described in an interview from prison what his first impressions were.

“I had been wondering where all the Maori had gone to, assumed we were all moving abroad, turns out we are just getting locked up in droves, over and over again,” he told blogger Teanau Tuiono. “For most Maori and working class people being imprisoned is like being kicked out of a burning 747 without a parachute.”

After his release in 2013 he was interviewed by prison researcher Dr Anne Opie, who described the account of his experiences as kafkaesque.

He talked of overcrowding, pressures caused by double-bunking (the practice of two prisoners to a cell), lack of access to phones for contact with whanau, widespread gang activity, insufficient access to programmes, and a state of squalor.

“Mr Kemara’s account of the daily physical and psychological experiences of prisoners in Spring Hill Prison during his period of imprisonment emphasises that prisoners do not have their most basic human rights upheld and their treatment in a number of respects is akin to torture,” says Opie.

This is New Zealand, right? Torture and inhumane treatment? Surely not.

There is much good going on within the New Zealand prison system. And in our investigation, we have encountered and witnessed many staff who are doing an extraordinary job. Undoubtedly, most Corrections officers are the unseen, unthanked heroes of our prison system.

And, in a way, they are being let down as much as anyone by the failures we have found, partly because scandals overshadow the successes they deliver.

It’s never an easy field, in fact it’s a profoundly difficult one, and controversies come with the territory.

Still, the fight club debacle of last year was a crisis almost without peer in recent New Zealand prison history, as it dragged on with more and more shocking details.

But have we heard everything?



This is part one of a six-part series examining the prison system and asking: is there a better way?