Prison artefacts show tough justice

18:25, Jul 08 2014
Philip Lister
CLOSED IN: Corrections Department national prisoner movement co-ordinator Philip Lister inside the replica New Plymouth Prison cell at the Heritage Centre on The Terrace.

In 1878, Waikawa man James Welsh murdered his wife and became one of the 84 prisoners legally hanged in New Zealand.

The original journal recording the details of his death is one of dozens of historical prison artefacts now on display at the recently opened Heritage Centre at the Corrections Department head office on The Terrace in Wellington.

Other items include a "cat o' nine tails" - a multi-tailed whip used on a prisoner convicted of rape in 1913. He was sentenced to hard labour and 20 lashes. Shackles and a ball and chain are included from the department's earlier days, alongside more modern contraband items confiscated from prisoners.

Alongside the shanks and tattooing equipment are some ingenious devices, including an electronic listening gadget designed to spy on guards' conversations.

A microphone fashioned out of a pen was handed to a guard, who was told someone had dropped it in the hallway.

Several days later a conversation between two guards was heard coming out of the prisoner's cell - he had been listening in on them ever since.


The showpiece of the centre is a replica cell from New Plymouth Prison, the country's oldest jail, which was shut down only last year.

Measuring a tiny 1.5 metres wide, 2.1m deep and 2.7m high, and resembling a dungeon rather than a prison cell, some of the rooms were even double-bunked until the prison's closure.

National prisoner movement co-ordinator Philip Lister, who has worked for the department for 40 years, said a small section of the centre had been dedicated to the prison service that operated during World War I, in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the Great War.

About 300 men who refused to fight were sent to prison in New Zealand, putting great strain on a system that was already struggling because many staff had been drafted.

"The military defaulters came into our system and caused absolute havoc," Lister said.

A particularly disruptive group of 14 were sent to the French front as punishment and had no choice but to fight.

"They were literally put in the trenches and given a rifle."

The Dominion Post