History I: Mount Eden Prison

In 1856, on the lower slopes of Mt Eden – a wooden stockade was built to house the overflowing at the Queen Street Goal. Sixteen of the most troublesome prisoners were transferred to the stockade in September 1856. Three of these men were serving a life sentence, one for stabbing a ship captain in the Bay of Islands, one for rape in the Auckland suburb of Newmarket, and one for killing a Maori with a piece of wood in Chancery Lane, a street in Auckland.

In 1865, completion of a new building on the site allowed the now decrepit Queen Street Goal to be demolished. Using mostly prison labour, construction continued, expanding the facilities further.

By the mid 1870s, prisoners had completed the outer stone wall, the wall that still stands today. In 1882, prisoners began excavation work on a building; Mount Eden Prison was officially opened in 1888.

Visit www.truecrimenz.com for additional information on this case. Including a transcript of this episode, with supporting pictures, sources, and credits.

Hosted by Jessica Rust
Written and edited by Sirius Rust

Music sourced from:

Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
https://filmmusic.io/
“Clean Soul”, “Digital Bark”, “Evening Fall (Harp)”, “Finding the Balance”, “Fresh Air”, “Unpromised”
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

The podcast version is the intended way to consume this story but I make a transcript available for those that would rather read instead. This can be found below.

History I: Mount Eden Prison

MAUNGAWHAU

Maungawhau is a dormant volcano. Last erupting about 15,000 years ago forming a large central crater. The crater was named by Maori, ‘Te Ipu-a-Mataaho’ – translating to ‘the bowl of Mataaho’. Mataaho was a deity Maori believed lived in the crater and was the guardian of the secrets hidden in the earth. 

The greater area around Maungawhau was dubbed Auckland upon NZ becoming a British colony; and the area immediately around the dormant volcano was renamed Mount Eden – named after George Eden, the 1st Earl of Auckland. With this, Maungawhau became known more commonly as Mount Eden.

In 1856, on the lower slopes of Mt Eden – a wooden stockade was built to house the overflowing at the Queen Street Goal. Sixteen of the most troublesome prisoners were transferred to the stockade in September 1856. Three of these men were serving a life sentence, one for stabbing a ship captain in the Bay of Islands, one for rape in the Auckland suburb of Newmarket, and one for killing a Maori with a piece of wood in Chancery Lane, a street in Auckland.

In 1862, due to the prisoner numbers continuing to rise, the government selected the Mt Eden site for a new prison.

In 1865, completion of a new building on the site allowed the now decrepit Queen Street Goal to be demolished. Using mostly prison labour, construction continued, expanding the facilities further.

By the mid 1870s, prisoners had completed the outer stone wall, the wall that still stands today. In 1882, prisoners began excavation work on a building; Mount Eden Prison was officially opened in 1888 – built to hold 220 inmates.

DESIGN

The main building became known by those who frequented it as ‘The Rock’. This intimidating stone structure was built based on the traditional ‘English’ design. Built in the vain of England’s Dartmoor Prison, designed based on the belief that prisons should be repugnant places; thus instilling a desire for prisoners to not return.

Fig 1. The main building, ‘The Rock’

To accompany this idea, punishments in Mt Eden were harsh – including floggings and whippings. The prison was rife with nooks, crannies and confined spaces, opportunist prisoners would take advantage of these to dish out their own punishments to other inmates.

Mt Eden also carried out the most severe punishment of all: the death penalty. The gallows was erected along the stone wall – so the public could stand on the elevated hill and watch the executions.

36 people in total were hanged in Mt Eden Prison. Those condemned to die were taken 48 hours before their execution to one of six holding cells closest to the stone wall, where the gallows were located. There, the prison staff would play cards with the condemned to help calm their nerves. The last man to be hanged at Mt Eden was in 1957, Walter James Bolton.

Mt Eden Prison was built as a panopticon building. A design concept by 18th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham; where guards could view all prisoners from one location, giving prisoners the impression they are perpetually being watched. 

Fig 2. Jeremy Bentham ‘Panopticon’ design.

Jeremy Bentham details this theory in his 1791 writings ‘Panopticon, or The Inspection House’, “The Building circular – an iron cage, glazed – a glass lantern about the size of Ranelagh – The Prisoners in their Cells, occupying the Circumference – The Officers, the Centre. By Blinds, and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed from the observation of the Prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of invisible omnipresence. – The whole circuit reviewable with little, or, if necessary, without any, change of place.”

WORLD WAR I

The First World War had a considerable impact on Mt Eden Prison. The Military Service Act of 1916 introduced conscription for military service. Many prison officers were sent away to fight. This led to understaffing so severe that the Inspector General of Prisons, Charles Matthews commented that the understaffing has made it impossible to effectively supervise and control the prisoners.

On top of this, prisons were to see a surge in the prison population. During 1917 and 1918, 208 men were convicted of “making public seditious or disloyal remarks” – speaking out against the war. 71 of those men were imprisoned; including Labour figure Jimmy Thorn who was imprisoned for 12 months for speaking out against mandatory conscription.  By the end of World War I, 273 conscientious objectors were still in prison.

Due to changing views about prison incarceration, most notably, that perhaps prisons could be more than just punishment but also about education and reform. By the early 1900s, the facility was declared obsolete by the Minister of Justice. 

By 1945, the public was putting pressure on the government to close the now out of date facility. The government agreed in 1951, announcing they would demolish the prison. Although, in 1953 due to a lack of funds, the demolition plans were postponed indefinitely.

RIOT

At 2am on the 20th of July 1965, two prisoners clubbed a prison warder, then took two others hostage. Using the guard’s keys, the prisoners unlocked the other cells, unleashing a prison riot. 

Prisoners began lighting furniture and clothing on fire. Prison officers released the other trapped inmates so they could evade the spreading fire. 293 prisoners in total were loose within the facility.  When fire crews attempted to extinguish the flames, they retreated under a barrage of bricks and timber.

Outside, surrounding the prison, 120 armed army gunners stood – firing warning shots for any of those thinking of escaping. By the end of the day, the fire had spread to the roof and it eventually collapsed.

After this, some prisoners surrendered – while others huddled together in the exercise yard for warm to get through the cold winter night.

The next morning, 33 hours after the riot began, the prisoners, short on food, finally surrendered – lured out by hot army stew. 

Upon inspection of the damage. Inmates destroyed basements, storerooms, the kitchen, the chapel, the watch house and 61 cells, while there was extensive damage to the prison roof. The prisoners also destroyed all the prison records.

Following the riot, there were calls for the aging prison to be closed and demolished. It was not, prisoners were relocated while the interior was rebuilt.

PRIVATISATION

In March of 1995, under a National government – laws were changed to open up prison management to private corporations. In 1999, responsibilities for Mt Eden Prison were given to Australasian Correctional Management (ACM), a subsidiary of multinational security giant Group 4 Securicor. A contract was signed for ACM to manage the prison until the 12th of July 2005. Mt Eden Prison was renamed Auckland Central Remand Prison.

In the same year, Labour took control of government and in 2001 New Zealand’s acting Corrections Minister, Mark Gosche told Prison Privatisation Report International, “The government is aware of overseas experience of private prison contracting.  However, the decision was based on the fact that prisons, by their very nature, involve the use of highly coercive powers against individuals 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  The government believes that such powers should not be wielded by private sector organisations. Rather, the government itself should be directly responsible for exercising these powers appropriately.”

In 2005, when ACM’s contract expired – control of Auckland Central Remand Prison reverted to the Department of Corrections. National party law and order spokesman, Tony Ryall told the NZ Herald on the 13th of July 2005, the day after the contract expired, “On value for money, for what you get, Auckland Remand Prison was providing more education and literacy, improved health services, and a much better deal for the taxpayer”. Ryall would go on to claim ACM had been running the prison at a cost of $43,000 per inmate per year, an $11,000 improvement over $54,000 in government run prisons.

In 2008, a National government took control of parliament once more. They revived the private prison policy in 2009 under the Corrections Amendment Act. Construction began on a new 554-bed Mt Eden prison building, gatehouse and support buildings. Total construction costing over $2,000,000. Developer Rider Levett Bucknall writes on their website, describing the new facility, “This multi-million redevelopment involved the construction of five buildings to provide accommodation and support services to the 554-bed prison. Replacing the dated facilities of a heritage building, the new buildings feature an innovative ‘twin-skin’ cladding system for security, privacy and to give the appearance of commercial buildings. These streamlined facilities create a more efficient and integrated single prison system.”

With the transfer of prisoners to the new building in 2011. The old building, ‘The Rock’ was closed, 94 years after it’s original completion. With the opening of the new modern building, the prison was renamed Mt Eden Corrections Facility.

SERCO GROUP

Multinational corporation Serco Group plc was handed the contract to Mt Eden Corrections Facility on the 1st of August 2011.

In 2012, Serco had failed to meet performance targets, with three wrongly released prisoners and three wrongfully detained; with one escaping. Serco received a $1.4m fine from the corrections department over their subpar performance.

Between the dates June 16th and July 4th 2015, six videos appeared online depicting Black Power gang members engaging in one on one fights with other prisoners watching and cheering them on. The fights were filmed on contraband mobile phones and became known in the headlines as ‘fight clubs’.

Some of the prisoners were wearing clothing with “SERCO MECF” print on them. This suggested the ‘fight clubs’ were taking place at Mt Eden. 

On the 9th of December 2015, Corrections announced they would not be extending Serco’s contract on its expiry in March 2017. Corrections’ chief executive Ray Smith explained, “I have decided that it is not and so I have invoked a breakpoint of March 2017 contained in the current contract that allows non-renewal after six years. In July this year I invoked the step-in clause in the contract, effectively giving management of the prison to Corrections. I made the decision to step in following serious allegations involving the safety of prisoners and staff and the emergence of ‘fight club’ videos and the use of contraband.” Serco was fined $8m in 2016 following an investigation into the problems at Mt Eden.

MT EDEN TODAY

In September 2017, trying to rebuild trust the public had lost regarding the operations in Mt Eden Corrections Facility – Rebecca Hallas and Daniel Gambitsis from the Equal Justice Project were allowed to enter the building to view the conditions.

They wrote upon entering the prison, “Our first stop was at the “Charlie” unit, where we entered the command centre, with its multiple TV screens, which oversees two separate facilities designed to keep prisoners safe. The first is the “mainstream” section, where the majority of offenders go, and is almost entirely comprised of violent offenders and gang members. The second is the “segregated” section, colloquially referred to as “segs”. This is designed to keep certain types of prisoners safe – many are first-time offenders, usually non-violent and unaffiliated with any gangs.”

Hallas and Gambitsis toured the medical ward and mental health unit. Concluding their tour with a conversation with the education staff. Education staff explained their mission was to get the inmates on the ‘highway’ out of prison,  “They explained their “Pathways” programme for prisoners, which provides courses in critical thinking skills, life skills and physical courses such as yoga, which assist prisoners to calm themselves and to sleep better. They also offer NCEA courses to allow prisoners to continue or resume their education.”

An inspection report of Mount Eden Corrections was released on the 6th of June 2019. The report found, “Staff were visible in the units and the level of prisoner-on-prisoner violence and intimidation was generally low. The restricted unlock regime caused tension among prisoners and limited opportunities for prisoners to take part in training and education programmes. However, staff and management remained positive and professional given these challenging circumstances.”

THE ROCK

The Rock was remained closed since 2011. The building has category one heritage status:  “historic places are of special or outstanding historical or cultural significance or value”. Therefore can never be demolished.

Corrections Department agrees with the historic importance of The Rock. As of 2019, there has been some discussion about turning into a museum, in the same vein as famous San Francisco prison Alcatraz.

The building is maintained by semi-regularly by cleaners. Stories of The Rock being haunted by the ghosts of past persist to this day. Cleaner Sahil Kumar explains to Stuff.co.nz in 2016, strange occurrences were abundant, one example: the lone loudspeaker would continue to crackle and moan, although power had been cut to the system five years prior.

When an electrician was called in, he cut the wires leading to the PA system – yet the ominous sounds persisted.

Another story, a contractor brought in for emergency repairs claims while crouched down working in a cell, a Maori inmate appeared behind him and yelled, “get the fuck out”. The contractor run from the prison immediately and refused to return.

Former Mt Eden Manager Neville Mark only fueled these flames further when he added, “The place had been blessed a lot in regards to those feelings and events but it appears it’s still happening now since it has been closed down. Staff have heard pianos being played, telephones going and lights going off and on. I’ve never been able to substantiate that but it’s come from a number of people, a number of staff and nobody can explain that. The silent, unsaid word around this place is definitely ‘haunted’.”

CONCLUSION

Still to this day, Mt Eden Corrections Facility continues to operate. Prison management has changed much 163 years after the original stockade was setup on what now is the corner of Normanby and Boston Road in Auckland. Public attitudes have slowly shifted towards a more humane approach.

On that note, we would like to end this podcast on an open letter by a man called Ross Ulbricht, you may know him as the creator of Silk Road; the dark web marketplace, which famously sold drugs that would be purchased with bitcoin and delivered to your door.

He was sentenced to life with no possibility of parole for crimes relating to running the Silk Road website. In the letter named ‘Who Deserves This?’, Ross asks the question of what the purpose of prison is; a place for reform or a place for vengeance:

“I was put in handcuffs for the first time when I was 29 years old. I was labeled a prisoner that day and have since spent 2,096 days and nights in the captivity of the U.S. federal government. I’m still in prison, condemned to die here with a life sentence and no parole. Prison is nothing if not boring, so I’ve had many hours to think about all sorts of things, including who, if anyone, really belongs here.”

“I don’t claim that we don’t need to keep some people separated from free society. As Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, “The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.” Some are possessed by their dark side and can be expected to violently prey on the weak and vulnerable. There are people like that in here. That doesn’t mean they “deserve” this or that they cannot change. It just means that humane separation is the only option until they do. But this is not humane.”

“Many of my fellow prisoners have no support from the outside. Their loved ones have either died during their long stay here, abandoned them or turned on them. All of us are cut-off to some degree. We seek mental escapes of every kind — some constructive, others destructive — to stave off confronting the abject horror of our situation. Violence is common, and the tension it brings is the air we breathe. Forcing someone to spend years or decades continuously like this, waking up to it every single morning, is cruel. If you disagree, I’ll prove it to you.”

“Imagine the worst torture you can think of that doesn’t leave the victim disabled, something you can’t deny is cruel: burning, flogging — take your pick. If the victims themselves would prefer this torture to imprisonment, the inescapable conclusion is that prison is worse, even more cruel. I, and every prisoner I have asked, would prefer any amount of pain and cruelty, for a limited duration, to the years and decades we’re forced to spend here — spirits crushed, hope abandoned, relegated to irrelevance.”

“No one deserves this, even if they have to here for the sake of others’ safety. Certainly, the many non-violent drug offenders growing old in here don’t. Pain does not heal pain. A lost soul is not redeemed in a cage.”

“Vengeance and cruelty are not aspects of our nature to be honored and institutionalized. They are base and destructive. They hurt all parties. Our families and communities are hurting. Humanity is hurting. The pain of your fellow human being is your pain too, even though it is locked away in remote prisons.”

“We can do better. We have the potential to rise above this darkness, to be proud of how humanely we treat prisoners and how few we need to brand with that label. Instead we hand out years, decades and lifetimes of imprisonment to virtually every person the government targets. We keep building cells like the one I’m writing this from.”

“Prisoners are not inventory. We are not numbers or statistics. We are human beings, and we don’t deserve this.”

SOURCES

Internet Articles
Medium, Who Deserves This?, https://medium.com/@RossUlbricht/who-deserves-this-6cff48f62b6f
Clough & Associates Ltd, Doing Time at the Mount, http://www.clough.co.nz/monographs/clough_monograph9.pdf
Scoop, Inspection report released for Mount Eden Corrections, http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/AK1906/S00118/inspection-report-released-for-mount-eden-corrections.htm
Wikipedia, Serco, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serco
Prison Privatisation Report International, No. 54, April 2003, https://web.archive.org/web/20130608081904/http://www.psiru.org/justice/PPRI54.1.htm
Te Ara, Prisons, https://teara.govt.nz/en/prisons/print
Wikipedia, Maungawhau, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maungawhau
ADLS, A glimpse of life on the inside – a trip to Mt Eden Corrections Facility, https://www.adls.org.nz/for-the-profession/news-and-opinion/2017/9/22/a-glimpse-of-life-on-the-inside-%E2%80%93-a-trip-to-mt-eden-corrections-facility/
New Zealand Geographic, A Riot in Eden, https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/a-riot-in-eden/
Stqry, Mt Eden Prison, https://discover.stqry.com/v/mt-eden-prison/s/003b0f61a5f2013d072dd73559ac9bf9
Wikipedia, Panopticon, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticon
Stuff.co.nz, Inside The Rock, https://assets.stuff.co.nz/interactives/2016/inside-the-rock/index.html
NZ Herald, Privately-run prisons not an option, says Swain, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10335611
RNZ, Axing Serco will give Mt Eden a ‘fresh start’, https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/291675/axing-serco-will-give-mt-eden-a-‘fresh-start’
RNZ, Serco to pay $8m to Corrections, https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/300603/serco-to-pay-$8m-to-corrections
TVNZ, Exclusive: Secret gang fight club at Mt Eden prison revealed, https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/new-zealand/exclusive-secret-gang-fight-club-at-mt-eden-prison-revealed-q01845
NZ Herald, Controversial private prison opens, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10715981
Wikipedia, Mount Eden Prisons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Eden_Prisons
Rider Levett Bucknall, Mt Eden Prison Redevelopment, Auckland, New Zealand, https://www.rlb.com/en/projects/mt-eden-prison-redevelopment-auckland-new-zealand/?geolocation=americas

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