Old prison reaches its use-by date

Last updated 05:00 29/10/2012
KARL DRURY/Fairfax NZ

Wellington Prison will close in November after 85 years. It has occupied its prime spot atop the Miramar Peninsula since 1927 and may be set to stay after the Historic Places Trust recommended it be made a heritage building.

Mirimar Prison
ROSS GIBLIN/Dominion Post Zoom
A prisoner's graffiti in a processing cell.

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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.

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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."

MEETING THE HANGMAN

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."

- Fairfax Media

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