Inside Arohata Women's Prison

AMANDA: "If I could have my kids, I would easily say I would stay in prison, but my kids suffer and that's what's finally made me realise this has to be it."
AMANDA: "If I could have my kids, I would easily say I would stay in prison, but my kids suffer and that's what's finally made me realise this has to be it."
STARK: Inside one of the high-risk unit cells at Arohata Women's Prison.
STARK: Inside one of the high-risk unit cells at Arohata Women's Prison.
AT WORK: Prisoners maintain the grounds outside the self-care units.
AT WORK: Prisoners maintain the grounds outside the self-care units.
PRISON GYM: Women find exercise, such as zumba and yoga, helps with stress.
PRISON GYM: Women find exercise, such as zumba and yoga, helps with stress.
OPENING UP: Drug counsellors Alison Frost, left, and Rosie Lithgow take an alcohol and drug therapy session.
OPENING UP: Drug counsellors Alison Frost, left, and Rosie Lithgow take an alcohol and drug therapy session.
INSIDE: Razor wire is a reminder that this is a prison.
INSIDE: Razor wire is a reminder that this is a prison.

The women sit in a semi-circle, heads down, quiet. They're there to talk about their most private experiences, many of them traumatic to recall. Five women with five long stories of abuse, drugs and violence.

Their stories and ages differ, but all are living behind the walls at Arohata Women's Prison.

They are taking part in a short alcohol and drug programme, designed to get them to open up about their problems and to recognise the root cause of addiction.

The last thing they want to do is talk to a reporter. The sight of a cameraman aiming in their direction makes them shift uncomfortably.

I ask why they are here, what they have been doing.

"Relationships", one mumbles.

"I just want to get better for my kids," another says.

How many of you have children outside? All of them.

Ten minutes later we leave, but as I walk towards the door one woman, slight and older, shuffles forward and asks the prison manager if she can give him a copy of a poem she has written about her time inside.

"He can have it. It's the truth."


Arohata means "the bridge", and this group of women are some of the 69 prisoners who currently call it home. Built in 1944, it was initially a women's borstal - a detention centre for young people - before becoming a youth prison in 1981 and a women's prison in 1987.

Bridges may be relatively simple things to navigate, but walking Arohata's innards is confusing.

Parts are new and shiny, such as the visiting area and video link rooms, while others are aged, all linoleum and cracked concrete.

The halls are long and cameras are everywhere, especially at the receiving office, where prisoners first arrive after being sent from court.

Custodial manager Taunu Taepa is in charge of this delicate process, and says it requires "very, very skilled" officers.

Often the prisoners are traumatised, not only from their court experience but from being separated from their children.

"A person whose freedom has been taken away will react in many ways and if there's an opportunity, it will be taken."

Asking questions, even the little questions, at this point is important. Staff have to remember that whatever the prisoner did to end up here, they still deserve to be treated with respect.

"They're people that we're dealing with, they're not animals. They're people, the feelings are there."

Like anyone else, prisoners have to eat, and inside Arohata the kitchen is bustling.

Instructor Jo McGregor, who oversees the women assigned to food preparation, has been at Arohata for 22 years. Back then, it was a little old building and the floor was falling out, she says.

Dinner tonight is roast chicken, baked potatoes and apple pie. Menus are standardised across the country, although men get three sandwiches for lunch, while women get two.

Sandwich inequality aside, another thing at Arohata that you won't find at a men's prison is "Middle-Eastern dancing" - better known as belly dancing.

Alongside yoga and zumba the activity is popular with the women, who find the exercise a good way to release the stress that often comes with no longer being able to smoke behind bars.

Apple pie and yoga may sound more like a retreat, but there's no mistaking this is a prison and the inhabitants are not to leave.

There are the usual features. The high- risk unit has four cells, devoid of all loose items and fittings. When occupied, they are checked every 15 minutes, and officers are stationed at the window constantly for particularly risky inmates.

They are given finger food with no utensils, and even magazines are banned, as the staples from their spines can be used by prisoners to harm themselves.

The bedding is of non-rip material, but determined women will sometimes try to use their own ponytails to strangle themselves.

Medical care is an obvious area that presents different challenges inside a women's prison, compared to a men's one.

Walking into the health centre, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a regular GP clinic. Pamphlets offering health advice are on the wall, alongside medical posters advising on the risks of hepatitis and asthma.

Acting health centre manager Fiona McKay says making the area as comfortable as possible is the aim, as earning the trust of the women is key to helping them with their health issues.

Upon arrival, many women have never had a smear test in their life, and the experience can be extremely harrowing.

"I would say it's like being on a desert island with a lot of people . . . anything could happen, from falling over and breaking your leg, appendicitis to ongoing cancer needs. We get a lot of interesting people in."


Outside the main prison, and separated by a security gate, are the self-care units. Built in 2001, each of the four villas can accommodate up to four prisoners at a time, who all live together in an arrangement almost akin to flatting.

The area is low security, and the occupants cook meals for each other and tend the gardens.

Inside, it's almost impossible to tell that the unit is anything more than a standard, everyday home. It boasts a living area, modern open-plan kitchen and a spacious balcony.

The only thing giving it away is the razor wire sitting in the foreground of a sprawling view of Tawa below.

During the week, nominated prisoners head out, with escorts, to the supermarket to buy groceries.

Those living in the self-care units either have medical issues or are approaching the end of their sentence.

Acting residential manager Ann Kensington says many of the women, especially those who have been locked up for a long time, have lost the everyday skills we take for granted.

The self-care units allow them to prepare for life on the outside, learning about bills, living with other people and getting used to changes that have occurred while they have been inside.

One occupant, who has spent years at Arohata, mentions it was quite a shock when she was first allowed to do the week's shopping. "When I came in here, milk was $2 for two litres, now it's like, 'Wow'."


At the heart of Arohata is prison manager Ann Abraham, a career public servant who had never worked for the Department of Corrections before signing up to run the prison about five years ago.

Dressed in full uniform, heels and black-rimmed glasses, Ms Abraham looks every inch a prison warden - and one not to be messed with.

She is economical with her words, yet honest, and chooses them carefully before answering.

Walking Arohata's halls, she seems well liked and respected by the inmates.

While gangs such as the Mongrel Mob and Black Power have a major presences in male prisons, they are largely invisible here.

There are several women who are affiliated with gangs, and a few staunch ones, but Ms Abraham says colours are usually put to one side while on the inside.

Bigger problems usually arise from relationships, with many women prisoners knowing their male counterparts down the road.

"It's stuff like, 'She was out sleeping with my sister's boyfriend,' or 'She had my brother's kids in the car when she killed them'.

"The 500 females [in jail] seem to know all 8500 male prisoners."

Conflict also arises from romantic relationships between women in the prison, for different reasons.

"They strike up relationships while here, some are just gay for the stay, and some are actually gay.

"If you're in here for a very long time, you know, what's your option?"

While many of the security processes are the same at both a men's and women's prison, prisoner needs inside are quite different.

"Once they get here, and once they find out this is a safe place, they don't have to be macho staunch and can be themselves, where males most likely can't afford to do that," she says.

"Women aren't used to looking after themselves; they're used to looking after their partner, their children, their parents but not themselves, and once they get here they have lots of time and we try to focus that time on just them, so they become very aware of themselves, what their risks are and learn to like themselves for a change."

She is proud of the "amazing" progress made in recent years at Arohata around focusing on the needs of a prisoner rather than the institution, although she admits things are not perfect.

She quickly says "yes" when asked if the prison is adequately funded, but says more could be done with extra money.

"I'm sure if we look overseas we would find other things we could be doing . . . but that costs money and it's all taxpayer money, so we have to take our share like everyone else."

The 24-week drug and alcohol treatment programme, the only one for women prisoners in the country, is singled out as perhaps the most important part of Arohata.

Female prisoners from across the country are transferred to Wellington for the programme. This is sometimes tough on the women whose families are unable to travel to visit.

But Ms Abraham says the price is worth it, with huge transformations seen in many who take part.

"When they come in they look ugly, but when they get it they turn into beautiful women. It's amazing."

Upon release, the stark fact is many will return.

For Ms Abraham, if they leave learning only one thing it's one more thing than they had before, and they perhaps have a slightly better chance to make it on the outside.

"One of the things the women miss the most when they're released is the sound of the keys.

"For many that sound is the only safe thing they've ever had."




"I'm a frequent flyer here but this is the last time, I'm determined to make this the last time."

The mother of two knows Arohata as well as anyone. This is her sixth time in the prison.

She has been here so many times it has become like a second home, almost a preferred home compared to the strife she faces every time she is released.

"You build relationships with the staff, with management, it does get hard to leave those relationships.

"I also believe in the past jail's been easy, it's been easy to me. The hardest thing has been being away from my kids.

"If I could have my kids, I would easily say I would stay in prison, but my kids suffer and that's what's finally made me realise this has to be it."

Despite looking forward to her release, she is thankful to be in Arohata rather than one of the other two women's prisons and believes it has made large strides in prisoner rehabilitation.

"I just think being someone who has been in this prison a number of years, through the sentences, I do see the changes for good.

"This prison used to be way out of control.

"I hear what Auckland Prison's like from some of the girls, and I think I'm so glad to be here and not there."

Amanda says growing up with no family support meant she always found it hard to ask for help, but completing the Arohata programmes have allowed her to do a lot of self-healing.

"It's been good for me, because I've had such a shit life, right from childhood all the way up.

"I've just been reunited with my brother and sister, though.

"Last time I saw them, I was 9."


As with many of the prisoners in Arohata, Violet is locked up because of drugs.

It's also not her first time in jail. This time she has been in for more than a year.

But eight months has been spent in the self-care unit, largely looking after herself, after the successful completion of the drug treatment programme.

"I love it. It's always an affirmation I'm one step closer to going home.

"It's just really nice to be able to live normally in a house. I'm in the baby house, and we had a baby in there until Christmas . . . it was kind of surreal having a baby in the house when you're in prison."

Violet, an imposing woman with a beautiful smile, admits to feeling a little socially isolated at times, as self-care prisoners rarely interact with prisoners in the main units.

But it's easy to see how positive she is about future prospects.

Working part-time in a restaurant as part of the release-to- work programme, she is also studying food preparation through a polytech course, and stood herself down from her first parole date as she wanted to complete her training first.

"I've never really had an opportunity to have a trade or anything.

"I'm here for drugs . . . I had quite an abusive upbringing and that was my way of escape, so everything I ever did was based around drugs.

"It's the first time I've been without drugs and it's the first time I've known myself without drugs. In a way, Corrections has kind of given me back my life."


Inside the self-care unit Rebecca shares with another prisoner, pictures of cats litter the walls. There are tabbies, gingers, tortoiseshell cats.

Kittens dominate, and inside her small room dozens more glossy feline pics are posted on the wall, next to a small selection of family images.

Since 2011 Rebecca, who has been locked up for many years for a crime described as "very severe" by Corrections staff, has been nursing sick cats back to health.

Her latest visitor, a curious kitten named Felix, squirms in her hands as she explains how therapeutic the animals have been during her time in Arohata.

"It's been such a lift for me, it's given me a purpose in life. If I'm having sort of a bad day I talk to the cats, it's great."

As part of a programme with the SPCA, the kittens are looked after by Rebecca until they are 870 grams. She weighs them everyday and fills out a log book with their progress and diet.

Several cats have been adopted by Arohata staff, which Rebecca thinks is great as she can keep tabs on their progress.


More than three years into her sentence, Janis feels like she is almost ready for the day of her release. It's a day she thinks about constantly, but is well aware it won't be without its challenges.

Being in jail and away from her family, children and grandchildren is extremely tough, but Janis seems to view her arrival in prison as something that was inevitable.

"I always expected to end up in jail because of what my crime involved, but I mean if you can't do the time, then don't do the crime."

Nearing her parole date, her release plan involves initially heading to a house run by a chaplaincy team, to ensure she has support when re-entering the public world.

She hopes to get a release-to- work job before then to get some practice in the workforce.

Training at Whitireia is a goal, with an eventual job in elderly care a top priority.

After ending up at Arohata, Janis initially had a tough time coming down off drugs, but has since gained her level two commercial kitchen qualification and works in the prison kitchen.

She has high praise for Arohata's Drug Treatment Unit, citing the 24-week course as the main reason for her better state of mind. "I felt the drug treatment programme was good, but it's only good if you want to make it good for yourself."

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.



Current prisoners: 69

High security: 2

Low/medium security: 55

Unclassified: 12

Total capacity: 88


Asian: 1

European: 27

Maori: 40

Pacific: 1


Arohata: 21

Auckland Women's: 17

Christchurch Women's: 18


Arohata: 69

Auckland Women's: 75

Christchurch Women's: 59


Arohata: 69

Auckland Women's: 358

Christchurch Women's: 75

Total: 502

The Dominion Post