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Paremoremo Prison: An inmate's view from the inside

"Last November, I listened to yet another prisoner get stabbed, 34 times during a five-minute melee. He nearly died. I watched from my cell as he was airlifted to hospital." Photo/Getty

Daniel Luff is an inmate at Auckland Prison serving a life sentence with 17 years non-parole for the 2002 murder of Detective Constable Duncan Taylor and the attempted murder of Detective Jeanette Park. Following a relationship break-up, Luff – then a 17-year-old schoolboy – barricaded himself in his former girlfriend’s home near Palmerston North, and shot Taylor and Park. While in prison, Luff, now 34, has completed his secondary school qualifications, gained a BA with honours in psychology from Massey University, and is currently working on a PhD, looking at offender rehabilitation.

In June this year, I completed my second stint in Auckland Prison’s maximum security section. Long known as Paremoremo, this section of the prison is called “Parry” by all who work and live in it. I’ve done four to five years of my life sentence there, all for poor decisions motivated by a mix of immaturity, self-centredness, institutionalisation and boredom.

I deserved to be sent up there. But neither I, nor anyone else, deserved to endure the chaos that occurred there. This article is not about me, though. Rather, it is about a dysfunctional prison and the rare chance we have to replace it. I acknowledge my perspective is only one of many and, given my position as a prisoner, is a potentially controversial one. Bearing in mind the extreme loss and heartache my offending has imposed upon many, I believe it is important to note I accept some people will feel my past actions negate anything I have to say. I totally understand why. Nonetheless, I also believe there is much at stake with our newly -opened maximum-security prison – for all of us. It is therefore important I add what is a rare perspective to the debate.
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Sitting back here in Auckland Prison’s medium-security section, I’m shocked by the 12 months I recently spent up in Parry (after I went into an out-of-bounds prison area, where contraband was also found).

I lived amongst madness. In May 2017, a prison officer was stabbed in B Block, almost to death. Several of his colleagues were subsequently stood down, facing criminal charges for alleged brutality in their response to the incident. (All were acquitted in September.) A while later, one prisoner bashed another in the head with a heavy steel bracket torn from a sink. Shortly thereafter, a young gang member was stabbed.

Last November, I listened to yet another prisoner get stabbed, 34 times during a five-minute melee. He nearly died. I watched from my cell as he was airlifted to hospital. Then, three weeks before I left Parry, gang members stabbed a high-profile lifer in D Block (where the most serious offenders are kept). He, too, was lucky to survive. Finally, the day after I left C Block, an officer there was punched to the floor in an unprovoked attack.

A Department of Corrections Inspectorate report on Parry found that in the six months prior to the year of mayhem detailed above, there were 22 incidents involving assault and 70 of staff being threatened and/or abused by prisoners. Exasperated by the worsening conditions, at least 30 officers protested, ringing in sick.
In response to media criticism of conditions, a senior Department of Corrections official told the New Zealand Herald in June that the prison was operating “safely and securely” and had done so for the last year. I suspect she and I have differing definitions of stability. I also suspect the extent of the madness in Parry was not known by the public.

In a recent interview with the New Zealand Listener, Corrections’ chief custodial officer, Neil Beales, commented that “people need to care a lot more about what happens in jail...” He is right. Prisons cost the public millions and are expected to help society by sending people back into the community, dare I say it, rehabilitated. In my view, it is doubtful Parry met this expectation.

Thankfully, Corrections is fully aware of this. Long story short, that awareness has culminated in a brand-new $300 million maximum-security prison. Sitting just across the road from Parry, it is intended to rectify its predecessor’s flaws, and provide a safe and rehabilitative environment.

I’ve watched it get built, the bulldozers shaping the viscous clay foundations in late 2015, the countless concrete walls going up. The facility was meant to be operational by March. Then we were told August. The official opening ceremony was held on Friday, 13 July – an ominous date, if you ask me – but the prison was not fully operational until late October. Most of the delay is said to have been around the teething problems inevitable in such a complex construction project. Some of the problems were quite serious, however. One, apparently, involved locked cell doors being able to be opened from the inside. Yes, that’s right, the prisoner’s side.

But the issue of the new prison is a serious one. Concerned with Parry’s insane environment, I have closely followed the plans for its replacement. And like many staff and prisoners, I’m not convinced its current operation will see the new prison sufficiently address the issues plaguing the old one. To explain why, it’s necessary to first consider Parry’s history. As you will see, the jail was not always what I perceive as a failure.
Oscar, a prisoner’s canary, catches the sun outside cells in Paremoremo prison’s C Block in 1991. Changes made several years later removed all pets and plants, and made the prison a much more sterile and negative environment, according to staff and prisoners. Photo/Newspix/NZ Herald/Glenn Jeffrey

Parry’s Better Years

In the excitement of our new prison, and perhaps in order to exaggerate its significance, many are overlooking Parry’s successful years. The year of its opening, 1968, fell within a very progressive era in Corrections. Parry was hailed as the most technologically advanced prison on Earth and, contrary to recent criticism, it was designed specifically with humane living and rehabilitation in mind. Indeed, its open, barred cell-fronts, naturally lit corridors and lush countryside views saw it labelled by some as too cushy. Seeking to improve on the confinement-oriented Victorian jail in Auckland’s Mt Eden, its purpose was to provide maximum freedom within a secure perimeter. It achieved this, becoming known as one of the best prisons in the country to serve time in.

Because it housed experienced and, in many cases, very dangerous criminals, Parry always had its fair share of violence. A prisoner had his throat cut in A Block in 1979 and another was murdered there in 1993, following a fight between two friends. Attacks on officers and gang-related stabbings also occurred from time to time. But despite these events, the regime and environment were, during its first 30 years of operation, remarkable for a maximum-security prison.

In the standard blocksthe or units, men were unlocked at 7am, with lockdown a distant 13-plus hours away. Further, the four corridors of cells in each unit were opened together, allowing all 48 prisoners to associate. Supplementing the open regime and liberal unlock hours, a great deal of work, programming, and recreational activities were provided. Parry had large, well-equipped boot-making and carpentry workshops, a weight room and gymnasium, chapel and multiple hobby rooms. Activities included debating, flax weaving, bone and wood carving, kapa haka and rugby league; inter-unit competitions were a regular occurrence. Journalist Carol Stewart described the atmosphere well in a story for the Auckland Star in 1991. “The corridors outside the cells are filled with plants, caged birds and tanks of fish. A prisoner works quietly on the computer in his cell, another does artwork and a third bone-carving.”

I have spent many an afternoon listening to my fellow prisoners’ stories of this era in Parry. Undoubtedly, one had to be tough to survive. As gang membership rose through the 1990s, staff worked closely with the influential prisoners to maintain balance. They also worked hard to protect the prison’s regime from knee-jerk reactions and ripple effects when serious incidents did occur. In the wake of the 1993 murder, for example, a search of A Unit revealed 24 weapons, including bats and chisels. Punishment, however, was strictly limited to the prisoners involved.

As late as 1997, core activities of the progressive regime, such as whānau hui, unit family days and inter-unit kapa haka, were still occurring. Unfortunately, a combination of factors led to changes that gradually produced the chaotic, oppressive environment I feel came to characterise Parry.

A Change For the Worse

Rex Blackler, a Paremoremo unit manager, talks with a prisoner through cell bars in 1992. Photo/Newspix/NZ Herald/Yanse Martin

One of the earliest factors to cause dramatic change was politically motivated. In 1998, then Minister of Corrections Nick Smith introduced a series of policy changes that, in my view, led to dramatic alterations to quality of life in Parry. Concerned with criticisms it had become too cushy, Smith introduced national standards aimed at bringing the jail into line with the rest of the system. Treasured items such as pet budgies, plants and most hobby materials became contraband overnight. To people who have nothing, such items provide significant comfort and personal identity.

Largely in response to the announced changes, prisoners in both A and B units rioted, destroying much of the interior of the buildings.

I believe this disturbance proved the catalyst for a complete restructuring of the regime, and stability in the prison deteriorated thereafter. Previous administrative attitudes towards incidents, involving negotiation, prisoner-officer goodwill, and efforts to protect the regime, in my view, entirely dissolved. Essentially, all hobbies and activities were banned, and little pro-social communication between prisoners and management now remains.

Further, prisoners became heavily segregated. For example, the four corridors of cells in each maximum-security unit were managed as units within units. Additionally, each of those corridors was divided in two, with prisoners being managed in groups of six. Notable about this regime is that, when first proposed, then prison director Bryan Christy rejected it amidst concerns that it imposed too much lock-up. However, indicative of the degree to which Parry was operated according to the views of those in charge, Christy’s successor was quick to approve the divisive regimes, around 2008.

In addition, staff cutbacks had led to the imposition of a standard 8am-5pm working day regime across all units in Parry in 1998 – meaning prisoners were unlocked at 8am, locked up for lunch between 11.30am and 1pm, then locked up for the night at 4.30pm. Prior to this, most wings in Parry had been unlocked from 7am to 8.30pm, because there were two full shifts of prison officers. So this nearly halved the time men were allowed out of their cells. However, in some instances, prisoners were unlocked for little more than two hours a day, with the situation reaching a point where management could not turn the screws of control any tighter, I believe.

Consequences of the Control Regime

What I find most alarming about this regime was that the policymakers did not seem to realise that in implementing increasingly restrictive strategies in order to try and prevent tension and violence, they were, in my view, contributing to those very outcomes. This occurred through several processes.

Consider the prisoner segregation, for example. With prisoners managed in groups of six, each unit had eight separate regimes. This had important consequences for everyone. Besides rendering it impossible to run programmes, the officers in each unit spent their days rushing, just trying to get each six-man group their minimum shower and two-hour yard entitlements. This eliminated the prisoner-staff communication and mingling that proved such an effective management strategy in Parry’s open-regime years.

The stress the prison’s officers endure has always been significant; it comes with dealing with the nation’s most troublesome men. In the current environment, though, the stress is worse than ever. One only has to look at recent media coverage to see this. Officers appear to be increasingly cynical and distrustful. Even we prisoners notice how many ring in sick; we can tell morale is a real issue. Having lived through several years of Parry’s counterproductive regimes, it is clear to me those responsible for them have not given sufficient consideration to the tension they cause.

Decades of research have established that carceral regimes involving prolonged inactivity and cell-confinement produce mental health problems and contribute to aggression. A key consequence of this is, I believe, increased aggression towards staff. The harsh routines we endure make us feel dangerous, as though we were animals. The officers become the face of the system; it is them we see locking us up each day for hours on end, enforcing policies made in the distant boardrooms of managers and head-office bureaucrats.

Tragically, the anger this produces often prevents us from seeing the people behind the uniforms and, wound taut by intense boredom, some prisoners are like armed grenades by the time unlock comes. Indeed, such is the desire to get out of those cells that if the officers are late unlocking, by even five minutes, you’re sure to hear men bash their doors in sheer frustration.

Another significant and largely overlooked factor contributing to the tensions that plagued Parry concerns social cohesion. Numerous veteran staff and prisoners tell me a primary reason the prison used to be more efficient was that staff worked closely with prisoners and gave them a degree of space to manage themselves. With entire units of 48 unlocked together, inter-personal relationships and communities developed. Over time, leaders emerged, increasing stability. This is basic sociology. When tough people are in such close contact, a level of balance will always develop. Survival depends upon it. Both A and C units, housing numerous gang members, were renowned for having stable, prisoner-managed environments. Each unit had a three-man committee that met with management regularly. Personal disputes, gang tensions and violence certainly occurred but, with oversight from staff, were generally managed without serious ramifications for the wider population.

The subsequent control-focused division of the units into six-man microsocieties destroyed this cohesion. Rather than reducing the violence, this regime increased it: when unlocked together, prisoners have little choice but to watch what they say and do; when they are physically divided, however, cliques emerge, creating a breeding ground for conflict. It becomes possible, for example, to gossip about and ridicule men on other regimes when one feels confident that one will never be unlocked with them.

An especially problematic symptom of the divisive regime is the pack-attack. I witnessed a particularly brutal, but not uncommon, instance last year. Having been secured in the basement of C Block to do my job, I heard blood-curdling screams erupt from the third-floor windows of an adjacent unit. These were quickly followed by yelling from guards and the smashing of broomsticks. Later, I discovered that when six prisoners had been unlocked for showers, five had set upon the sixth man among them. The victim, a rival gang member, was stabbed repeatedly and beaten. He had friends in the corridor but, being on divisive regimes, they were locked in the first six cells and could do nothing to help – and in fact had to endure the humiliation of the attackers coming to their cell doors to taunt them.

This is the kind of chaos I believe Parry’s divisive management of prisoners produced. It is far less likely such incidents would occur when all 48 prisoners are unlocked together. Indeed, I believe it is much harder for predators to isolate victims when the latter are amidst friends and, generally, prisoners will not pack-attack others unless victory is a certainty.

Clearly, none of the restrictive control measures made maximum security units safer for anyone. Hits were regularly ordered, from one “six” to another, one unit to another – and often over little more than a smart comment that had left someone festering for months. I spent many hours lying on my cell floor listening to men on one regime whisper through their vents to those on another. It was during these early-hours conversations that lines were drawn and schemes hatched.

In the days of the open regime, staff were able to keep more abreast of prisoner tensions, through both the committee meetings and relationships forged by mingling with prisoners. But that has all gone now and, with multiple regimes to manage, it is impossible for officers to adequately monitor the layered, fluid prisoner-politics of each unit. The best staff can hope for is to feel the tension, and see the glares, hours or minutes before something goes down.

I have discussed the issues that plagued Parry with numerous senior officers – men and women whose careers here span decades. A few were working here before I was even born. They agree, almost unanimously, that the single most important step the new prison can take to address the current issues is to implement a more open, activity-filled regime.

The New Prison: A Chance for Change

A corridor at the new prison. Photo/Ken Downie/North & South

A project team was assembled to develop all aspects of the new maximum-security prison, from physical design to the regimes to be used. Comprised of various experts, including prison officers and managers, engineers and psychologists, this team has worked hard to innovate – to improve upon Parry’s flaws in order to create an environment that is safe, secure and rehabilitative. I recently spoke with the prison’s director, Andy Langley, about this. He confirmed the overall goal with the new facility is to “make it as open as possible whilst still safe and secure”.

Given the architecture of the place, there is indeed a lot of possibility. Recent media reports have praised the single-floor design, spacious cells and wide corridors. Certainly, a great deal of money was invested in this, and in acoustics. Every effort has been made, for instance, to minimise the travel of noise, rendering cells more peaceful while also reducing the ability of prisoners to yell between adjacent units.

Nearly two decades of imprisonment convinces me these factors will contribute to an environment more conducive to human growth. Undoubtedly, the architecture is a significant improvement on Parry, where multiple levels, staircases and crevices rendered living and working conditions unnecessarily noisy, laborious and dangerous.

You may be thinking it’s rare for a prisoner to praise Corrections for getting something right. It is.

The new facility also aims to address Parry’s drabness. The latter was a rather mundane, barren place and staff tell me even in its better years it was “sparse”. A former chaplain described it to the NZ Herald as a “concrete mess”. Not all, however, believe the new prison is much of an improvement in this respect. A number of officers think it feels very clinical and cold, like a mental asylum.

I’m not surprised by this. I too had suspected the intensely electronic, remotely controlled, totally surveilled nature of the new prison would have consequences for its atmosphere. I also suspect, however, that the regime and programming utilised will largely determine the impact of the institution’s apparently clinical, panoptic feel.
Two issues will have the strongest impact on creating a more efficient prison: how much unlock prisoners get, and what will be provided to occupy them.

Corrections plans to provide many programme and work opportunities. Various work and study spaces have been created, with activities including electrical assembly, welding theory, horticulture, trap manufacture and health-and-safety instruction. There are also several computer suites to assist with Open Polytechnic courses and self-directed learning. While not reaching the plethora of activities once available in Parry, this regime is a vast improvement on the most recent situation.

A particularly notable aspect of the new prison is the kitchen operation. Costing around $25 million, it is fully computerised and, unlike Parry’s small single-shift kitchen, will employ multiple shifts of prisoners. With plans to prepare meals for other prisons in the wider Auckland region, the kitchen will create great work opportunities for some. Further, a catering service will also be provided, with a prisoner-run cafeteria for staff and visitors. From a rehabilitative perspective, what’s particularly notable about this is that the cafeteria will afford a rare space in which prisoners and their keepers can interact in ways not possible within the confines of a cell block.

Certainly, all of the above features will contribute to countering the heavy atmosphere that so often develops in maximum-security environments. They will also help condition prisoners to spending their days on their feet, minds occupied by something other than soap operas and prisoner tensions. Much of the success of these activities will, however, depend upon the amount of time in which we are able to access them.

I foresee adequate access being a problem. Of most concern is that, like the old Parry, the new prison’s regime is based on the cheapest option: the 8am-5pm working day of a single shift of staff. This greatly restricts the amount of time prisoners can be unlocked. Management plans to provide up to six hours of unlock per day in the maximum-security units.

This is obviously a significant improvement on the worst practices of Parry. Nevertheless, it does not seem so noteworthy when contrasted with either the 13-hour unlock regime of Parry’s progressive years or with the regimes of similar facilities internationally. Indeed, even the maximum-security penitentiaries of the US federal system generally provide 12-16 hours of unlock.

Accordingly, if our new prison is to thoroughly outclass Parry and offer adequate access to programmes and work, it needs to get men out of their cells for more than six hours. Doing so would have numerous benefits besides rendering the prison a world leader.

The Importance of Real-world Conditions

I have already noted that long hours of cell confinement are destructive from a rehabilitative perspective. One reason for this is it encourages institutionalisation. Under the 8am-5pm regimes in most New Zealand prisons, people are at work by the time prisoners have breakfast at 8.15am. They are still working when we are locked up for lunch at 11.30am. And children have barely finished school when prisoners are fed, often in their cells, at around 4pm.

If punishment and containment is all society expects from our new prison, then the artificiality of the above routine is fine. However, if taxpayers want the facility to help prepare us for healthy, law-abiding lives upon release, I ask they carefully consider how this regime may hinder such outcomes.

To contribute to rehabilitation, the regime needs to create real-world conditions to the greatest extent possible. I’m talking about the sorts of conditions law-abiding people in the community live in. The 8am-5pm regime cannot do this. Rather, it creates institutional, sedentary habits that in no way prepare prisoners for the rigours and responsibilities of the outside world.

I know this because I have gradually become the embodiment of those habits. For instance, over the last few years I’ve found it increasingly difficult to stay awake during the 11.30am-1pm lunch lockdowns. The monotony experienced when you’re locked in a concrete box produces nothing but lethargy. Engaged in a full-time doctorate, I have no excuse to lie down, to doze off. But, along with many, I do.

In addition to fostering institutionalised habits, it has also been seen, looking at the experience of Parry, that long hours of lock-up produce resentment and intense frustration. From this emerges the “us and them” environment that was so widespread in Parry. A final way the 8am-5pm regime is ineffective is it reinforces prisoner stereotypes of maximum-security. Prisoners’ views are largely shaped by the depictions of wild, hard-core supermax penitentiaries prevalent in film and gangsta-rap music. Feeling that Parry’s violence and long hours of lockdown fitted those depictions, many young men considered enduring its harsh regime to be a rite of passage. For them, Parry became a proving ground, a place where reputations were both made and lost. Those who withstood the test that survival presented often adorned themselves with a tattoo of the prison’s unique watchtowers. Ultimately, we prisoners have come to expect a maximum-security prison should be oppressive, should be vicious. This has consequences for our attitudes and behaviour that, sadly, most of us are not even aware of.

The above issues concern me greatly. During my conversation with Andy Langley, I was told the new facility is “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”. As it’s only the third maximum-security prison built in New Zealand’s 178-year penal history, he is right. But if Corrections does not seize this rare chance to be bold, to move the new prison beyond the damaging constraints of the Parry-type regime, many of the issues associated with it will simply re-emerge within our new facility. After all, the prisoners aren’t changing: they’ve simply been moved from one building to another. And, while the new building is better than the old one, it is, as one grey-haired Parry manager said, “just a building”.

Thus, if positive outcomes are to be had, what is done with the men housed there must change. Whether the solution involves reinstating a 13-hour regime or a less resource-intensive option such as scrapping lunch lockdowns, action must be taken if the new jail is to reach its potential in terms of both safety and rehabilitation. I’ve been told Corrections is planning to introduce 10-hour shifts for staff in the near future. This could contribute to increasing prisoner unlock hours – at least a little.

A prisoner’s cell in the new maximum-security prison that became fully operational in late October. Photo/Ken Downie/North & South

Is Change Really Possible?

A lot has changed in the 50 years since Parry opened. Society has become highly risk-averse and, critically, men are bringing to prison more developmental and addiction-related issues than ever before.

Parry regularly received prisoners directly from the courts, men whose bodies had often been ravaged by drug abuse, methamphetamine in particular. Unsurprisingly, some staff have argued this more complex prisoner-type was the primary reason for the deterioration of Parry’s regime. I disagree. But regardless of the truth, it provides no excuse to impose harsh, counterproductive regimes in the new prison. Rather, the prison has 80 beds, in two units, specifically designed for the care of complex-needs prisoners. Having such facilities also provides the opportunity to implement an open regime for the 180 standard-unit men – a regime that could incorporate the aspects that proved so effective in Parry’s first 30 years of operation.

Implementing such a regime will require real change, so will not be easy. For one, enabling significantly more unlock time would require a doubling of staff, thus more money. Further, a cultural shift will be required if management is to move away from divisive, damaging, small-group segregation strategies. Head-office bureaucrats and managers will need to acknowledge most of their previous strategies failed to make Parry safer. This will require humility.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle of all is that the changes needed require taking risks. It is likely this is where innovation will falter. Corrections has become increasingly incapable of coping with risk. And, to be fair, I can understand why. Being subject to intense, often inaccurate criticism following any incident has reduced its focus to one of protecting reputations through overzealous control, even when this means damaging the rehabilitative capacity of its prisons. If these issues are to be overcome, politicians and head-office staff must be willing to put themselves on the line. They need to have faith in the new prison’s staff, to listen to them, and to empower them with the autonomy and resources necessary to make the needed changes.

New Zealand’s maximum-security prison will always be, as its staff say, “political”. But if the new one is to succeed where Parry was allowed to fail, its regime must be protected from the risk-averse whims of successive bureaucrats and their political masters.

Unfortunately, recent experience suggests to me this is very unlikely. In August, head office ordered Auckland Prison’s medium-security section to begin locking cells as soon as prisoners have vacated them. Reacting to recent footage uploaded to YouTube of prisoners tattooing in a cell in Rimutaka Prison, the bureaucrats are doing what they always do: implementing control measures that will fail to mitigate risk while heavily disrupting the prison’s regime.

With prisoners locked out of their cells during unlock hours, there is nowhere to go to the toilet, nowhere to go for respite. Living space for 48 men has been reduced to small recreation rooms. And the staff, already overloaded with compliance-oriented paperwork, are spending much of their time opening and closing cell doors as prisoners come and go from activities. Recognising these issues, the prison’s director and one of his managers asked head office for exclusion from the regime change, given it is a response to an incident that did not even occur here. Each man has more than 20 years’ experience in prison management. They know prison. But it didn’t matter. I understand they were not listened to, and the policy was enacted on 29 August.

It has become increasingly clear in recent months that our justice system is haemorrhaging and in need of bold reform. Where better to start than taking steps to ensure the new maximum-security prison reaches its potential, to ensure a shift is made toward healing people, rather than breaking them?

The alternative does not bear thinking about, but we must confront it. Allowing political interference, long lock-up hours and divisive micro-management of prisoners to become standard practice in the new prison would result in a repeat of past failures. I believe this is likely and, within a decade, many will be criticising our new prison for producing harmful outcomes reminiscent of those that sounded the death-knell for Parry.
Given the opportunity for change the new prison presents, such an outcome would be a grave injustice to prisoners, Corrections, the victims of crime and society alike. 

No payment was made for this story.

This article first appeared in the December issue of North & South.