There's a strong smell of disinfectant in the receiving office of Mt Eden Prison. It is hospital- level clean.
When we asked Corrections Chief Executive Ray Smith if our visit to the prison would be “sanitised’, it’s not quite what we meant.
“No, we’re taking you to some of the most difficult parts of the jail and also some of the good things happening in the prison, so I hope you get a good feel for it”.
This is the guided tour of Mt Eden Corrections Facility given by the boss himself.
We’d made a possibly cheeky request to have him show us through the prison so we could witness first-hand the improvements that have apparently occurred since what’s now widely known as ‘step-in’, when Corrections took back control of the prison after the fight club scandal last year, which saw Serco turfed out.
Journalists and cameras haven’t been allowed in till now, so we were somewhat surprised when Smith came back and said ‘yes’, albeit with one condition: if we were to go into Mt Eden he wanted also to show us around Spring Hill prison, so we could get a more balanced perspective of what the prison estate really looks like. Mt Eden is, after all, idiosyncratic. It is the biggest remand prison in the country. It’s on a central city site with extremely limited outside space. Its walls have housed some of the country’s most formidable prisoners. It’s not a pleasant place to be.
No doubt there are psychological, calming reasons for the sickly-shade of yellow of the holding cells. Each can contain hold 8-10 newly-arrived prisoners as they await processing. And it’s a lot of processing - there are 110 ‘movements’ of prisoners in and out of Mt Eden every day.
With such high throughput the struggle against contraband is constant and the degree of screening means it’s hard to see how banned substances and items make it through, yet they do.
Each inmate is body scanned and metal-detected, and there’s a special machine to alert officers to hidden cell phones. If there are suspicions an inmate is concealing something, they’re taken to a ‘dry cell’ to, as Smith describes it, “wait for it to pass”.
“It’s quite a tough job for people who work here because they have to deal with people passing things in ways that are quite unpleasant, stuff that the rest of us don’t have to deal with”.
It’s a point he makes repeatedly, that public understanding of the job of a prison officer is limited because of the nature of the business: unlike the work of those in the police, fire, or ambulance services, what happens here happens behind closed, locked doors.
It’s one of the reasons Smith agrees to let us in here; he’s proud of his 8000 staff nationwide, a number that's about to rise. On the day we’re filming he tells us the national prison muster has just ticked over to 10,000 for the first time ever. Combine that with the fact the Government has announced the building of facilities for 1800 more prisoners, and the result is a department on a recruitment drive, advertising for a further 600 people. Prisons are a growth industry.
Delta Unit is intimidating in its degree of swagger; there’s a different mood here to the wings we’ve just come from, a physicality about the inmates that is palpably more staunch. It turns out it’s because this is where the street gangs are held, or as one former inmate describes them, the street punks: the Crips, Bloods, the Killer Beez.
Looking out from the control room you observe what you’ve seen over and over in American movies, the scene is exactly the same: everything is grey, including inmates’ prison sweats. Two floors with cells around the outsides, the lower floor crawling with inmates, sitting around built-in metal tables and chairs, some playing pool, some cards, others lurking. One busts out a full, threatening, roundhouse kick.
Yet if the scene sounds familiar, it’s not just because you’ve seen it in the movies: it’s because Delta is where five out of the six fight club videos uploaded to YouTube were filmed.
Those sickening fight club videos.
“I think the worst thing about that from my perspective is that people, some people, were forced to participate,” Ray Smith tells us.
Is that still happening? The strong message since step-in is that the prison has been cleaned up, improved. But Stuff Circuit has been told by inmates recently in Mt Eden that the fight clubs continue to this day. So do they?
Ray Smith has a dollar each way.
“I don’t think [they are] and we have good intelligence about that, and expect our staff to tell us if they saw anything like that emerging. That’s not to say that on any one day in any one prison in New Zealand someone doesn’t try to start one of these things up. That will always happen. The issue is if you see it you deal with it and you get it stopped, and you let management take care of it. You don’t let it perpetuate, you don’t turn a blind eye and let it continue. You’ve got to step in and do something.”
Then how come Smith, as chief executive, was never given that opportunity, never told what was happening at Mt Eden - and indeed at other prisons - until after the fight club scandal went public? That, he concedes, was a mistake: staff were wrong to have made that decision not to give him the report into the fight club investigation.
“I think the report should have been shared and the Prison Director should have been given that report earlier.”
Pressed further about who’s accountable for that decision and whether there’s been any disciplinary action, he says, “Jeremy Lightfoot, who’s the National Commissioner commissioned that report, he and I have spoken about it a number of times. He’s disappointed as I am that we didn’t advance that report, but look we didn’t, and that was a mistake”.
So no disciplinary action then for Corrections staff, but remember Serco lost the contract over fight clubs, the Prison Director, Gareth Sands, lost his job.
Smith frequently asserts that it was inadequate Serco staffing levels that allowed the fight clubs to continue - “the underlying issue was staffing”, and that he “worked very strongly with Serco to lift staffing levels”. But was there another problem too? Was Serco raising concerns about the muster?
“Ah, they probably did, but every prison in the country would have been saying to us, ‘Gosh, we’re having to take more people and how do we accommodate that?’. If you’re running a jail you have to adjust and take people in. And at no point ever was that prison asked to take more than it was in its muster requirement”.
Remember, though, that it wasn’t just concerns about the number of inmates that Sands says he was raising the alarm about - he felt it was reaching a point where Mt Eden was no longer safe for prisoners, or staff.
When a prisoner breaks the rules - seriously breaks the rules - they’re shipped down to the innocuously named “Management Unit”. In these stark, suicide-proof cells, with a “dedicated yard area” (a small, enclosed concreted space so prisoners don’t have to interact with others) they can be locked 23 hours a day.
What does that do to a prisoner psychologically?
“Well that’s why you don’t want to be down here,” says Smith. “The question is how did you get here. You generally got here because you’re very dangerous to be around. So what we can’t have is people assaulting or perpetrating acts of violence against other prisoners or staff and they have to be segregated in this way. And they do lose privileges. But you only get here if, basically, we’re struggling to control you in the environment in the main prison.”
The suicide-proof nature of these cells is a blunt pointer towards one of the biggest issues facing Corrections: that 36 per cent of inmates have a mental health issue.
Which brings us to the use of tie-down beds and the fact that the Chief Ombudsman is investigating four cases, including one in which an inmate at Paremoremo was restrained on a tie-down bed for 16 hours a day, for weeks on end.
We had met the family of Ricky Sellar, who died in Paremoremo Prison in November last year and who had, before his death, been subjected to the use of tie-down beds.
When we told his father, Keith Galyer, that news, he was appalled. “Why are they using those sort of tactics in New Zealand? Who in their right mind okayed it?”
It’s a good question. And Ray Smith is torn. On the one hand, he says tie-down beds are “such an extreme use of physical restraint” and that he’s worried about their use, particularly in the 16-hours-a-day case.
On the other hand, says Smith, “What you have to look at...is that if the alternative is the person dies because we can’t control their behaviour, it may be that it’s the only alternative way have available, right at the end of the continuum”.
He points out how comparatively infrequently tie-down beds are used. “Across the last three years there’ve been 12 people that have had to experience a tie-down bed at some point. So out of the 7,000 people that went through an at-risk unit, a very small number have ended up having to be exposed to the extreme use of force.”
His next comment, though, full circle, is illustrative of his unease.
“I think we need to keep reviewing it to make sure that absolutely we have no other options, and to be honest if there’s a treatment option that can medicate people, that would be my preference.”
How often and for how long had he been ‘tied down’? Could his death have been prevented?
Corrections cites the fact that there has yet to be a Coroner’s inquest as the reason it can’t answer those specific questions.
Though Smith is sympathetic to the family’s concerns. “It’s a very sad situation. Can I just say I’d be very happy to reach out to the family, and I’ve spoken to the inspector in Auckland who will undertake the final review that’s been started in this case, and it will go to the Coroner….and she’d be really happy to meet with the family, so there’s an offer right there. The second thing with Mr Sellar is he was a prolific self harmer; he had spent many years in prison and from what I can gather the most part of it in special needs areas, so, you know, I think that must have been very very challenging for the staff”.
Ricky’s family does indeed get a call from the inspector. Their questions may be answered.
It's a burning hot day when we arrive to film at Spring Hill prison, in the rolling green of the North Waikato. Our cameraman observes that in comparison to Mt Eden, it looks like a day spa.
We’d been told by a former inmate that our access would be limited to the pleasant parts of the prison; the self-care units, where inmates ‘flat’ together, the workshops where they learn a trade. We are shown these, and allowed to talk to inmates.
“Dave”, from Tauranga, who’s learning how to be a builder, tells us he’s still got a way to go on his second lag, but he’s determined not to come back, and plans to keep away from ‘high risk situations’.
“Like, just the wrong people, hanging out with the wrong people.”
He speaks to us with the approval of the Corrections staff escorting us. Another inmate, further up the hill, wants to speak but seems not to be allowed. “It’s not a prison without prisoners,” he yells in our direction.
The bountiful vegetable gardens, the bright Pasifika Unit, the happy dog-training.
And then to our surprise we’re taken to the top of the hill - 16 Bravo, where the riot happened in 2013, when prisoners drunk on home brew lit fires and caused $10 million worth of damage. Smith tells us it was a “long hour and a half” while he waited in Wellington to hear control and restraint teams had quelled the riot. “It was a very serious incident and a very scary event.”
There’ve been changes to the design of the unit - the yard is now segmented in half, prisoners can’t access the control room, there are escape areas for staff. And another significant measure to mitigate against another riot: believe it or not, a restriction on the amount of fruit prisoners can order, both here at Spring Hill and at other prisons, including Mt Eden. “Fruit is one of the major contributors to making homebrew,” Smith tells us. “As are raw vegetables, as are a range of things they can get their hands on. I wouldn’t want to drink it. But I guess if you can ferment something you can make home brew.”
Actually another ex inmate tells us of even more accessible ingredients that are used, which of course we won’t reveal here - suffice to say when it comes to making alcohol, the ingenuity is boundless.
It is, after all, a desperate place, where tobacco commands $1000 per 50g, where nicotine patches are worth a fortune because, we’re told, some inmates can earn $5000 a week making ‘T-Bacco’, from patches and tealeaves.
It is a world apart.
The former director of Serco-run Mt Eden prison, Gareth Sands, had told us of how he liked to walk around the prison as often as he could, to “breathe it in”. Even though our tour is escorted and some parts of the prisons were off-limits to our cameras, we got a sense of what he means.
This is part five of a six-part series examining the prison system and asking: is there a better way?