Back behind bars

IT STILL looks grim on the outside, surrounded by two layers of grey wire netting, high, looped razor wire and windowless walls, though the empty control towers, now yellowed with lichen, make the jail look more like a deserted chicken coop than a holding pen for dangerous men.

Once pristine, the concrete of the front steps is falling away, and something else is new; sniffer dogs primed to detect drugs entering the prison, and an airport-style security screening system for visitors' bags. The office area beyond is none too flash: the women's toilets are out of loo paper, and used paper hand towels are piled up by the basin, a sign – one of many, as I will discover – that the jail's maintenance teams are barely keeping the place short of dilapidation.

Prison manager Neil Beales greets me. At 40, he's roughly the same age as this part of the jail (it has expanded to include a medium security block, a minimum security work and pre-release unit, the Living Earth compost business, and a sex offenders' unit) and he's in much better shape than his surroundings. Beales arrived here from England late last year to take up this job, with a background mostly in working with young offenders, but before that, perhaps surprisingly, he had a short career as an actor. "I needed a captive audience," he jokes, the first prison pun of the day.

Crime and grime: Paremoremo.
Photo: Lawrence Smith
Crime and grime: Paremoremo.

Today I won't see the whole jail, and we must be vigilant at not photographing locks, keys, or prisoners' faces. One wing has been destabilised by a group of young offenders who've made trouble at another jail and been sent here, and other places are off-limits for various complicated reasons.

The part of the jail I'm visiting, which opened in 1968, is now known as East Division. When I first came here it housed 135 men, including 23 murderers, and had 96 "disciplinary staff". Today the renamed and expanded Auckland Prison on this site holds 643 prisoners, about 90 of them classified as maximum security, and has a staff of 225 Corrections Officers (the new job description) of varying ranks.

My first indication of the new reality of the place, once proudly described as among the most modern in the world, is the visitors' room, as far inside the jail as prisoners' families ever get. Gang culture, along with the growth of the illegal drug trade, has certainly changed things since the old days, when prisoners might actually have physical contact with outsiders. Today visitors are locked in a kind of plastic aquarium within the large room. They can communicate with inmates, seated around and outside the box, only through small metal grilles with holes too fine for anything to pass through – I imagine even words would be a challenge.

The old lino in here looks truly gross, as it is through much of the jail. Maybe it's curling and discoloured because of damp. A concrete yard runs alongside, sprinkled with cigarette butts, and weeds are growing in the downpipes and pavers, the closest most prisoners will get to actually seeing a live plant for some time; they never set foot on grass. It must be a depressing place to visit, hellish when small kids and adults are squashed together in the small space, all talking at once. Interestingly, many visitors have thanked the jailers for the aquarium because they can no longer be forced into smuggling contraband inside. Only 3% of prisoners have tested positive for drug use since this regime began. That's seen as a huge triumph.

I am shocked by what was once a gleaming, immaculate corridor, its windows standing smartly to attention. They are now covered in bird droppings; birds have even nested against a windowpane, and they don't look as if they open and shut properly any more. The once smart paint job is peeling and old, rust is doing its work, and a whole PhD could be done on the subject of the lichen on the encrusted window frames.

"It's getting a bit grubby because of the danger level," Beales concedes. "One cleaner has to have two or three wardens supervising him. And I can't get the prisoners out here with mops and brushes. They'd beat each other with them." This, dirty as it is, is better than English jails he has known.

I point out a vent in the wall that is clogged with dust, and that the sweeping is inadequate. Until now I thought I wasn't much of a housekeeper. An extra, pervasive touch is the smell of institutional cooking that creeps everywhere. Tonight the prisoners will dine on chilli con carne – or what you and I would call mince. They have no choice of meal. In Britain they could pick from a menu of six options each day.

There is some work to be had inside this prison, and if you're lucky you'll be one of up to 15 men who get it. Warden Kevin Smith runs a workshop where the men assemble electrical downlights for export, and as part of that do NZQA courses on first aid and health and safety.

This must be one of the few parts of the jail where men have access to tools that would be weapons in the wrong hands, so it's a position of trust, especially as Smith, like all the other wardens, is unarmed. "The sentence goes quicker if you work, and some want the money," he says. "They can make up to $14 a week, and not many leave once they come here. They start work as a team, getting up in the morning, smoking cigarettes at certain [stipulated] times, doing what we have to do, come to work. When they become really low security we try to get them out on day release through the companies we work for here."

A young Polynesian man is tongue-tied when he's asked to explain to me what his job involves. Other faces in the room look depressingly familiar from old news broadcasts.

Although I won't see the special needs prisoners, I'm to see their special area, one of a few in which there are now female wardens. The first female corrections officers started working at the prison in 1987 and women now make up 14% of staff, although I saw only two on this visit. On the way downstairs are prisoners' wishful murals of deep sea fishing, and Alsatian dogs.

The dining room here has fixed stools attached to the tables, yellowing sponge rubber spilling out of their wrecked vinyl padding. This group has access to what is considered to be a therapeutic room full of potted plants. At one end is a painted mural of snow-capped mountains, green hills, house-paint blue water, and a family of deer. There are Boston ferns serving their time here, along with assorted begonias, succulents, bromeliads, a flowering peace lily, dusty rubber plants, and things that are very dead. I'm not sure what to make of this strange scene.

"It's a challenge for the staff and prisoners to rise above the environment," Beales says. Perhaps my disapproval is getting to him. He explains that he can't just close down a unit of 48 cells and repaint it, because with a rising jail population, and the security requirements, there's nowhere else for the men to go.

LIKE OTHERS working here, Beales joined the prison service (at 21) when he met his wife and realised he'd need a more regular income to support a family. Maybe the uniforms and the regimentation of the job weren't that alien: born in South Africa, Beales did his compulsory national service there before moving to England. A third of his staff is now also South African, a mixture of its races.

An easy and thoughtful communicator, Beales is also a master of management-speak: he describes a military-style prison boot camp for young offenders he previously worked in as a good idea, though the cost was, "not a model that could have been progressed". The subject of money recurs: he's well aware that prisons are a low priority for shrinking government funds: "There's a tighter fiscal environment than in the past, and that's a good thing," he says, "We should be responsible for public money." I will soon find that comment depressingly ironic.

In the beginning, Paremoremo was designed as a maximum security jail to hold our worst offenders. It's a replica of an American jail which is now in permanent lock-down, but Paremoremo has gone the other way, having endured a trying period of gang conflicts that could have made the regime more severe if management hadn't worked out other strategies. Beales isn't a fan of the original model: he favours a dispersal system, spreading the most high-risk high-profile prisoners around in small groups throughout the country.

This doubtless reflects the thinking of when he entered prison service, when something called the Decency Agenda was introduced in Britain, aimed at improving the jail environment for both prisoners and staff. That isn't easy to do in an environment of bored and dangerous men, and Beales acknowledges criminologist Greg Newbold's observations about how gang culture slowly changed the ethos of this jail for the worse. "We are now relatively stable, but at a cost," Beales says. "We can only let six men out at a time rather than 12, as we used to. We've added plastic sheeting to the front of cells to prevent stuff [he means faeces and urine] being thrown at guards, and we're trying to reduce the number of assaults by prisoners on other prisoners."

There is no such thing as solitary confinement here, though Beales can order what's called "directed segregation" of an inmate, or confine prisoners to their cells. Especially dangerous prisoners may effectively live that way, one reason why Beales would like to see a special facility for them. There's an at-risk unit here for people at high risk of harming themselves or others, but he'd like to have a special secure unit for them; what he calls, in management-speak, "a permanent place with some interaction on a permanent basis with forensic input".

"You really do value your freedom when you work in prisons, and how easy it is to throw it away," he volunteers. Beales used to give talks to schoolkids about this. A persuasive moment was always when he showed them a pair of prison underpants, and let them know that if they ended up in jail, goodness knows how many people would have worn their prison issue before them.

ROD KNAPP is in charge of security. He once thought this would be just a fill-in job, after he was made redundant from a job in the computer industry, but he grew to like it and has stayed for 13 years: "There's a sense of achievement even though it doesn't look like it." He seems remarkably relaxed, considering his responsibilities, and says a lot of what goes on, day to day, is based on humour; a prison can't run without it.

Some things baffle him about prisoner behaviour – like the "walk-aways" when men have moved out to the lower security prison. "They'll have done seven or eight years here, have six months to go, and walk out. I've never seen the logic in it.

"The lower security guys can be harder to look after than the ones in maxi," he offers. "Someone may have just killed a person, but it doesn't mean they're difficult to manage."

Just now 51% of inmates are Maori, mostly here for violence or sex-related crimes, and 18% are Pacific Islanders. They would hardly find the first vacant cell I enter inviting, then, with "Nazi Pride" written on the ceiling in smoke, along with "Sieg Heil". Someone else has boldly written, "I Regret Nothing" in blue biro on a cell wall. It was worth, then, this scruffy narrow cell, this rigid metal bed base with its thin mattress, this naked toilet. At the end of the cell block are the two showers. You don't have the luxury of a shower every day, though you do get an hour's exercise guaranteed. The shower booths are mouldy.

A second notable pun of the day comes from Doug Keith, a warden here for 42 years. "Do you get that shut-in feeling?" he calls.

I'm jotting down headings on the wall for emergency staff response, which tell their own story of the workplace. I write: Hostage Response; Riot/Inmate Disturbance; Escape; Person in Razor-Wire ("Tell them not to panic" is the first useful advice, followed by a warning not to go near them or they'll pull you in as well); Suicide (and Attempted); Death; Use of Force; Medical Emergency; Fire. I'm seeing why the wardens' offices have emergency escape chutes.

"You've got to be able to look beyond the crime," Knapp says. "If you focus on that [with a prisoner] you'll never be able to do your job, and you'll drive yourself nuts. You have to be aware of the potential for danger, manage the risks, and be aware that these are human beings at the end of the day."

The reality of what prison is comes home to me only when I enter a wing and catch sight of a patch of blurry brown through the bars of the cell as I walk past. It takes a moment before I realise that this wing has men in it, and that I'm looking at a stranger's naked back, up against the plastic screen and bars he lives behind. He turns, and I see the other men standing in their cells, heavily tattooed, also half dressed, warily curious. I feel as if I've invaded their privacy, an uneasy feeling since they, after all, are trapped, and I can walk away.

Their reality is a space six feet wide and ten deep into which they may squeeze a TV if they, or their family and friends, will pay for it, and they can stand to be reminded of the world outside. Otherwise it is long hours – years – of boredom.

"We didn't arrest them, we didn't convict them, but we will contain them," says Beales, in a kind of short mission statement. Says Knapp, "Between here and home I get part-way down Hobson Rd and shut off. That doesn't mean that this is all a bad environment." He adds, "Sometimes just having a prisoner say `good morning' to you is a success."

Both men impress me as being humane, compassionate and firm, the very qualities you'd want in a jailer. My worry is not with them, but with the jail itself, and the direction we're heading, with more prisoners, more jails, longer sentences, diminishing funds, doubling-up in cells, and what it really means to tell people they'll spend the rest of their life locked up. Our increasing moral uncertainty about so many things has had the effect of making us very certain about this. I wonder why.

Sunday Star Times