Old prison reaches its use-by date

A prisoner's graffiti in a processing cell.
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A prisoner's graffiti in a processing cell.
A cell.
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A cell.
Tables set up in the visitor's room. The prisoners have to sit in front of the orange triangle.
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Tables set up in the visitor's room. The prisoners have to sit in front of the orange triangle.
A prisoner is frisked down by a guard.
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A prisoner is frisked down by a guard.
An archive photo of a criminal heading to the prison.
5 of 13Alexander Turnbull Library
An archive photo of a criminal heading to the prison.
An archive photo from the Auckland Star.
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An archive photo from the Auckland Star.
A prisoner in the exercise courtyard.
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A prisoner in the exercise courtyard.
Prisoners exercising in a yard.
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Prisoners exercising in a yard.
Graffiti in a processing cell.
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Graffiti in a processing cell.
A view within the prison.
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A view within the prison.
The Queen's portrait graces the guard room.
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The Queen's portrait graces the guard room.
 A peep hole into a cell.
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A peep hole into a cell.
The barred door leading to the visitor's room.
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The barred door leading to the visitor's room.

Small, rambling and with a distinct personality, Mt Crawford is worlds away from modern prisons up and down the country. Inside the entrance way, framed paintings of a young Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip hang slightly crooked on the wall.

The prison wings have large classical windows and double-height ceilings. Each cell holds a bed, a desk and a toilet but, contrary to popular opinion, the inmates have never had a view.

"Nope, nothing to see out the window but a big wall," Corrections officer Ben Tairea says. For Mr Tairea, who has worked there for two decades, it will be a sad day when he finishes his last shift at the prison on the hill.

"I like working here. It's a pretty good place to come to each day."

Time has taken its toll on the jail, which was built in 1927. In the receiving block, where prisoners get their first glimpse of their new home, graffiti is scrawled on the walls. The floors are worn, patchy white paint smothers the hallways and the office is filled with odd, mismatched pieces of furniture.

In the visitors room, inmates and their guests sit at low wooden stools turned on their sides. The exercise yards - in the centre of the prison - are barren strips of concrete. A urinal and shower sit at one end and rugby balls lie forgotten and hopelessly tangled in razor wire on the roof.

In June last year, the corrections minister at the time, Judith Collins, called the prison a disgrace. She said prison officers did "their very best in very difficult, Dickensian situations".

The sentiment was nothing new. In 1968, the government described the toilets at the prison as "so archaic they are reminiscent of a Charles Dickens novel and would have to be seen to be believed".

Despite its condition, the prison sits on some of the city's most covetable land. The 6.2-hectare site had a capital value of $6.9 million in 2009.

The placement of the prison, so close to suburban Wellington and on such prime land, has long been a cause of concern for locals - dating back to even before it was built.

In 1923, Wellington mayor R A Wright protested to the justice minister after rumours surfaced that a new prison was to be built there. "Mt Crawford . . . is one of the most prominent sites around Wellington and it [is] scarcely conceivable that the Government would utilise it as a prison site."

The new prison was intended to be a departure from the Victorian conditions at The Terrace Gaol - it was to be rehabilitative and humane. Much of the prison was built by the prisoners themselves, using hollow concrete blocks made from sand from Wellington's south coast.

By the 1960s, many of the prison's service buildings had fallen into disrepair. A Palmerston North architect, who was serving a sentence at the prison, was engaged by the government to design a new building for the site. In 1965, mayor Frank Kitts described the prison as an "anachronism in land-starved Wellington".

Then, in 1971, Miramar residents, unhappy at the prison's proximity, commissioned a report on the cost of moving it. The price tag was estimated at $2m to $3m.

The prison's next step is not certain, but a report carried out by the Historic Places Trust has recommended it be made a historic building because of its social, historical, architectural and technological values. The Corrections Department is considering the report.

Prison historian and Corrections national prisoner movement co-ordinator Phil Lister says Wellington Prison has served its purpose well. "There'd been a prison built on The Terrace, where Te Aro School is now, since about 1850 and it was well past its use-by date.

"The Terrace jail was overcrowded and very old. So when they were looking round for a suitable location, there was Mt Crawford and . . . it was decided by the government to be a perfect place for a prison."

Because of its small size, it usually housed only between 120 and 200 prisoners. "It was constrained by its land, so it's remained as it was."

Wellington Prison gave inmates the opportunity to stay closer to home. It was also built differently, with "the windows wider than the standard at the time, the cells slightly bigger".

Prisoners were put to work at the on-site print shop, extensive gardens and brickworks.

It was also a place where four convicted murderers were hanged by the state. A portable gallows was erected in the corner of the prison for each of the executions in the 1930s.

"This would be erected a couple of days before the event, it would be tested, the hangman who had been employed to do the job was generally brought to the prison the night before to view the person who was going to be hanged," Mr Lister says. "My understanding is that about 17 stone [108 kilograms] was the weight limit for a prisoner who could hang."

It's an urban myth that executed prisoners were buried standing up with a rock on their heads to remind them of the weight of their crimes. By the time Wellington Prison was built, executed men were given a proper burial by the prison service.

Mr Lister, who started working for Corrections as a prison officer cadet at Mt Crawford in 1974, remembers the place fondly.

"A lot of the staff up there were long-serving and I know they enjoyed working up there. It's not a large environment, you got to know all the prisoners and the prisoners knew them . . . it's a lot easier to build a rapport."

He would like to see the community get some use from the site. "It's like all prisons we built in the early 20th century, it's served its purpose pretty well. It's just that it has reached its end date. But from a historical point of view it's a bit sad - it is just that time."

Former city councillor and long-time Miramar resident Ruth Gotlieb spent many hours at the jail. "We used to go and play bridge with the prisoners. It was some of their only contact with outside people. We enjoyed going there and having contact with them - they had such a sense of humour."

She became friends with a prisoner who had been jailed for drug offences and tried to help prepare him for release.

"I was egotistical enough to think I had reached one particular inmate. We'd been going there for months [when] I said to my husband: ‘I've really reached him.' I made him promise no more drugs, I tried to get him a council flat.

"I was really sure I had done something good with this young man. Then he was released and within 24 hours he was dead from a drug overdose. I cried my eyes out."


George Errol Coats, 30, labourer, December 1931: His crime captured the attention of Wellington’s imagination. Phillis Avis Symons, 17, had been pregnant when she was buried alive in soil dug out for construction of the Mt Victoria tunnel. She was the girlfriend of Coats, who was working on the tunnel. He  - bashed her over the head with a pipe and buried her in a grave he had dug days earlier. The head injuries were not fatal and she suffocated in the earth. The pathologist described how her body was discovered hunched up, indicating she had tried to escape but had been unable to due to the weight of the soil above her. Coats claimed she had committed suicide and he had buried her fearing he would be blamed for her death.

George Edward James, 57, engine driver, December 1933: His murderous actions spread across the town. First, he killed his live-in partner Cecilia Smith in their flat in Ohiro Rd, Brooklyn. He was later seen  merrily cycling with her 4-year-old son Noel across the city. Hours later Noel’s body was found wedged in between some rocks at Shelly Bay. His head had been bashed. James then went to a Lambton Quay pub before throwing himself into the harbour. By the time police discovered the body of Ms Smith – lying on the bed, her throat slit – James had been rescued. He had left a suicide note on the wharf, blaming his daughter for his decision to kill those he loved. ‘‘Nancy ... if you had only given me and Badge a little sum out of the money to start us up in married life... I am sorry to have come to an end like this but it is all through your selfish ways that I did. Yours broken hearted father, G James,’’ he wrote.

Edward Tarrant, 60, wood merchant, March 1933: The trial of Tarrant attracted great public interest in Blenheim in 1932,  it being the first murder in the region for 30 years. Tarrant, an expert axeman, was charged with attacking elderly Picton man, James Flood, in his home. Flood had been struck with an axe several times with such force he had nearly been decapitated, and his wallet was missing. Several days later, Tarrant – who was in financial difficulties – began spending money and settling debts all over town. Tarrant claimed he had found the wallet in a bush. When he was found guilty, Tarrant told the court: ‘‘I never did it.’’

Charles William Price, 44, teamster, June 1935 : On February 6, 1935, Price hired a taxi from Hastings and collected his mistress, Evelyn Mary Madden. The pair had met working on a farm and had been  sharing a room at several hotels around town. The taxi driver dropped the pair off in remote Argyll East, near Waipawa in Hawke’s Bay. An hour later, Price returned to the taxi alone. He had bashed Madden, a maid, with a piece of wood about the head and hidden her body in a creek under willow branches. Days later, police found her white hat and empty wallet hidden in nearby bracken. The Crown prosecutor said Price might have murdered her in order to steal £30.


At 6.45am on December 17, 1931, George Errol Coats was roused from his sleep by prison staff. His last night alive had been peaceful. He ate little of his breakfast  and requested only a glass of brandy.

As he stood on the gallows shortly before 8am, he was asked if he had anything to say. In a quiet voice he replied: ‘‘No, except that I wish to thank those who have been connected with me. I am innocent. I trust in the Lord.’’

A white cap was placed on his head and a rope hooked around his neck. Moments later the sheriff raised a piece of folded white paper in his hand nte, the signal for the hangman to draw the bolt.

 Coats plunged from view, his body hidden by green canvas erected to hide the scene. After he had been left hanging for an hour, his body was passed through a small hatchway in the prison wall where waiting relatives would collect it.  A black flag was hoisted in the prison.

‘‘He met his end calmly, resigned to his fate and affirmed his innocence from the gallows,’’ wrote an Evening Post reporter who witnessed the execution.

Eighteen months later, Edward Tarrant, 58, was hanged at the prison.

 At 7.54am, on March 6, 1933, he was led to the gallows. ‘‘He passed a quiet night last night and ate a good breakfast this morning. He refused a stimulant before going to the scaffold,’’ the Auckland Star reported.

When asked for his final words, he said: ‘‘Nothing.’’ 

Teamster Charles William Price was sentenced to death for the killing of Evelyn Mary Madden on a remote station in Hawke’s Bay. When asked if he had any final words on June 27, 1935, he shouted: ‘‘No’’. In his last moments,  on he trembled and said to the priest: ‘‘Goodbye, Father’’.

George Edward James, 57, slept well on his last night. On the morning of December 15, 1933, he submitted quietly to being ntehaving his hands tied dhtogether. Just before the white cap was drawn over his face, he said: ‘‘Goodbye everybody. May God have mercy on my soul.’’

Tarrant, Price and James are buried at Karori Cemetery, while Coats’ ashes were scattered at sea.


Former Dominion editor Jack Young attended one of the hangings at Wellington Prison as a reporter.

"It was a mechanical sort of operation . . . it was just a job of work," he told The Evening Post in the 1970s.

The reporter never saw the man on the end of the rope, which was hidden by scaffolding, but the press bench was set up just below the gallows. "You heard sort of a swish as the guy went down. It was all over in a few minutes.

"It never made the slightest difference watching and then you came back to the office and wrote up the same old cliches about the hearty meal and that sort of thing."

He drove back to the city with the hangman, who came from Lyttelton. They did not talk about the hanging and Mr Young asked him if he was returning straight home.

"Like hell, I'm going to the Supreme Court to get my money," the hangman said. The payment then for an execution was £25.

That night Mr Young met one of the prison officials at the pub, who remarked of the execution: "A good clean job."

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