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Paremoremo prison's experiment in humanity

Guard towers at Paremoremo. Photo/Getty Images

The design for a new maximum-security prison at Paremoremo seeks to respond to a troubled history. Rosemary McLeod is the first journalist to visit an experiment in humanity. 

“[Prison] is the detestable solution, which one seems unable to do without.” – French philosopher Michel Foucault

“People need to care a lot more about what happens in jail and how people get there.” – chief custodial officer Neil Beales

On the northern fringe of Auckland city, where suburbs peter out and pony paddocks begin, a new Paremoremo prison is taking shape, its design based on the best of motives. It may be a challenge to battle old problems and habits, endemic in such jails, but the Corrections Department is pinning its hopes on the experiment.

Auckland East is its official name, but our first and only maximum-security jail is always known as Paremoremo, after the area, northwest of Auckland, where it is located. The prison was opened in 1968, in part to take pressure off Mt Eden Prison, where men still had to line up to empty their potties in the morning. I know this because I saw how prisoners lived there in the early 1970s: I smelt the primitive Victorian plumbing that seemed to have soaked the stone the jail was built from. We’ve come some distance since then.

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Men were hanged at Mt Eden. Edward Te Whiu, a 20-year-old from a bleak background, was the inspiration for James K Baxter’s 1955 poem of protest against capital punishment, A Rope for Harry Fat. He was one of four men hanged there in that year. Walter Bolton, a wife poisoner, was the last, in 1957. Now the old stone jail, which has a Category 1 heritage classification, is mothballed, perhaps awaiting an imaginative developer. A medium-security jail, built in 1981, also to relieve crowding at Mt Eden, sits alongside but separate from Paremoremo.

We abolished the death penalty in 1961, and today we waver between punishment for serious criminals, revenge for victims and a newer idea, rehabilitation. Those conflicting ideas explain why running jails is a difficult task. Ending capital punishment, which had been a cheaper option than long-term imprisonment, left the problem of how to deal with people who will live many years behind bars. As we demand ever-longer sentences for a range of crimes, that problem is compounded by swelling prison numbers. The nationwide prison muster is now more than 10,000; 10 years ago, it was 6048.

Read more: Paremoremo Prison: An inmate's view from the inside

Our new maximum-security jail will hold 260 criminals, the same as the present one. A March departmental report said that maximum-security prisoners made up 1.6% of the total prison population. The cost of keeping a prisoner in maximum security is $320 a day. To look after 10,000 prisoners takes 8000 prison officers, as well as 428 medical staff and 1600 registered volunteers. For that amount of effort and money, reformers would like more positive outcomes than we’re getting.

Auckland East Prison at Paremoremo was modelled on the most secure federal prison in the US in 1968. Photo/Alamy

I was the first woman to see inside Paremoremo, when it was about three years old, new and sterile, and I remember the impression it made on me. The clanging of opening and shutting doors in its corridors, controlled from a central hub, was a constant background noise. I wondered, seeing the concrete exercise yards, what it would be like to never feel earth under your feet or smell freshly cut grass. There was no view to the outside world and nothing interesting to look at.

The prison library was small – a determined man could have read all the books in a year; and few prisoners were trusted with tools to pursue hobbies or develop skills. I couldn’t enter D block, where the most difficult of the difficult prisoners were, but it looked like the familiar row of prison bars. Bodybuilding in the testosterone-filled gym seemed to be the main entertainment. The men’s pale skin reflected how little time they spent outside.

In 2010, 40-odd years later, I returned to find the place was worn and slightly grubby, and even the few pot plants weren’t thriving. Anyone would become depressed in such a setting.

Paremoremo was a copy of the maximum-security prison near Marion, in southern Illinois, built in the 1960s to replace the infamous prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, which closed in 1963. At the time, Marion was considered the most secure federal jail in the US, and we copied its high razor-wire-topped walls, and towers from which armed guards watched for would-be escapees. After two prison officers were murdered at Marion, all prisoners were kept in permanent lockdown for 23 years. The prison has since been downgraded to a medium-security site.

Andy Langley, the new superintendent. Photo/Ken Downie

Scruffy conditions

I doubted even back in 2010 that armed guards still watched over the concrete and razor wire at Paremoremo. Siege thinking had become less fashionable by then. The prison had become an anachronism. I pitied the staff, who had to make a working life in scruffy conditions among the most difficult people in the country, and I pitied the difficult people themselves, some of whom might never leave. It was lousy accommodation for the price.

The then superintendent, Neil Beales, who is now chief custodial officer at Corrections’ head office in Wellington, felt the same as I did about Paremoremo – though he did not disclose that to me at the time – and was thinking about the kind of maximum security jail he’d rather have. “It didn’t seem like a place where hope was a presence,” he says now, and maybe prisoners felt that, because there have been violent incidents in the seven years since I was last there.

The most common weapons made by prisoners, known as shanks, are plastic utensils or toothbrush handles filed to sharp points. These may well have been used in October, when six guards were attacked and stabbed with improvised blades, and their private information was discovered before the trial in the cells of gang members accused of attacking them. Police had failed to delete from documents the guards’ home addresses and the names of their next of kin and partners, putting them at risk of gang retaliation.

The whole prison was in lockdown for 23 hours after the October attacks: no one could leave their cells while police carried out an investigation. Prisoners in the other blocks had contraband confiscated when their cells were searched thoroughly by staff. A few personal possessions can mean a lot to someone in a confined environment. I wonder what retaliation against everyone for the offending of a few does for good relationships between prisoners and staff.

A prisoner's cell. Photo/Ken Downie

History of dissatisfaction

A series of reports on or involving the existing Paremoremo reveals a long history of dissatisfaction. A 1972 inquiry found that many inmates did not need maximum-security control, had too little work to occupy their time and lacked adequate access to remedial education.

The 1988 Mason Report into the country’s provision of mental health services recommended that a hospital be set up within Paremoremo with specialist psychiatric staff and that more attention be given to the special needs of disturbed Maori prisoners, who asked for a permanent visiting kaumatua and access to a minister or tohunga.

In a profile of despair, Judge Ken Mason reported that between 1983 and 1987, 126 Paremoremo prisoners had mutilated themselves, 13 had attempted hanging and 13 had killed themselves. His committee’s assessors found that 11 of 17 prisoners identified by Paremoremo staff as psychiatrically disturbed were indeed certifiable by experts as insane. Of the 17, 13 were Maori.

Accounts of the disturbed men make harrowing reading. One prison officer is quoted as saying, “Nobody can tell me a man who gets a screwdriver and drives it through his head and then a month later drives a four-inch nail into his head is not disturbed.” Another said, “We are not really trained in psychiatric nursing.” Yet the two existing Auckland psychiatric hospitals would not accept referrals from the jail, where there were only two part-time psychiatrists working with disturbed men and no separate facilities for them. Today, Corrections believes 90-95% of Paremoremo inmates have some form of mental disorder. In the wake of that report and in the hope of more humane outcomes, what we now know as Mason clinics were set up around the country to house deeply disturbed prisoners in small secure psychiatric wards.

A prisoner's cell. Photo/Ken Downie

Wholesale dismantling

After a riot at Paremoremo in 1998, the Roper Report recommended dismantling the traditional prison system and replacing it with small “habilitation centres”. That didn’t happen. Criminologist Greg Newbold calls the idea “a reformer’s reverie and an administrator’s nightmare”. Maximum security remained as it was. Perhaps plans for a new style of prison, unlike any other in the world, were already imagined. Perhaps the familiar problems were shelved again.

A 2012 fire in D block, which has always held the most difficult prisoners, followed by gang trouble prompted discussion between Beales and visiting Corrections boss Ray Smith about what could reasonably be achieved in such an environment. Beales said they wanted something far away from the neglect and decay I had described at that time, “and if we wanted to do good work, we agreed we would need to have a building to facilitate it”.

Beales stresses that the prisoners in Paremoremo are “the most problematic people in our society”. Yet criminologists say and experience shows that men who are hard to deal with in jail may not be a threat to the wider community: the implication – that imprisonment itself may contribute to prisoners being unwell – is not a new one.

A corridor in the new prison. Photo/Ken Downie

“At the moment, there is not much to offer the wider group of maximum-security prisoners because of the way we have to manage them and the restrictions put on that,” Beales says. He thought about the way prisoners moved around the old building: one prisoner needing several officers to move him, which is a drain on staff resources. The new build will instead bring services to the prisoner’s unit.

Laid out flat in a diagram, the complex, which 650 workers are building, looks a bit like a technical bunch of flowers, with each unit, or wing, connected to a hub, but with basic needs provided for within each wing. On long journeys through prison corridors, trouble can happen, putting the safety of both prisoners and staff at risk, but the new system will have employment and exercise yards close to units, so officers will have more time to focus attention on individual prisoners rather than ferrying them around.

The jail is a huge work in progress: the wing closest to completion is the usual rectangular shape, with opposing rows of cells linked at one end to the outside and at the other to the hub where the prisoners can work, get medical attention or take part in educational programmes, and where airline-style meals will be delivered for reheating and serving. Ceilings will be much higher than previously in cell blocks, so cells will be less claustrophobic. Men will be able to choose to eat alone in their cells or with others in the wing. There will be no large prison dining-room, where movies and crime shows tell us attacks and riots can happen, and no need for a single kitchen serving the whole jail.

Timber cladding is intended to make the buildings seem less harsh. Photo/Ken Downie

No-frills living

The cells will be no-frills, but with innovations. Each will have a television set into the wall and a shower (showers are now communal and not provided every day). Much thought went into this second innovation, including consideration of privacy. Prisoners will be visible while showering in metal mirrors positioned so guards can see them only from the waist up. Otherwise, the prison has good lines of sight throughout, a design originating with the panopticon prison model first developed by Jeremy Bentham in 18th-century England, which allowed every inmate to be observed at any time from a central point.

So far, the concrete structure is obvious, but the buildings will be clad in timber on the outside, with the intention of making them seem less harsh. Other innovations will include a landscaped outside area with some lawn and garden, previously unheard-of in this category of prison, and another with a variety of textures underfoot, which, it is hoped, will be appreciated by prisoners more used to sensory deprivation. There will be a fish tank and possibly the chance to train dogs for the disabled, which some female prisoners already do. Prisoners here will progress gradually into less tightly controlled living quarters. One will have soft furnishings, so those known to be at risk of self-harm are kept safe.

Corrections chief executive Ray Smith; right, chief custodial officer Neil Beales. Photo/Getty

More humane, less punitive

The current maximum-security prison was designed, as Neale puts it, to keep prisoners away from staff and staff away from prisoners. That is incompatible with the more recent view, outside the US at least, that jail should be a place of rehabilitation and preparation for eventual release and should ideally be more humane than punitive.

But this is complicated by prisoners’ mental illnesses and/or alcohol and drug problems. Echoing the Roper Report, Neale says he can see a time when there’ll be a need for a prison with a secure unit designed almost like a ward. Apart from serious mental illnesses – such as schizophrenia – anxiety, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress and mood disorders are all more common here than in the general population.

The new jail will no longer have guns on the premises, but it will still be surrounded by a double row of razor wire and high walls with sensors. Drums on top of the walls will prevent an anchor being slung over, and lights are set at an angle that makes it impossible for anything to be hooked over them.

Andy Langley will be superintendent of the new prison. Like Beales, he has long years of experience and was a prison governor in Britain. He’ll be working with a new employment model. Previously, a prison manager had responsibility only for custodial staff; employment and health staff had separate lines of accountability. Here they will all merge. Staff will train and work in teams, and there will be a longer training programme for prison officers than before.

In Norway, prison officers train for two years, and their first year at work is supervised by a mentor. In New Zealand, they get seven weeks of training, which may have been adequate when their only duties were custodial. This will rise to 12 weeks plus a first year on the job working with a senior officer. Emphasis will be on de-escalation, control and restraint; the potential for violence is always present, and police will be called in to deal with it when it happens.

Langley says he’s keen to have his new jail look less institutional than Paremoremo has been, maybe with prisoners’ artwork on the buildings.

Meanwhile, the situation of Maori offenders, in particular Maori recidivism, is a priority for the department. It says it already had an aim to reduce Maori recidivism by a quarter by 2025. But last month’s Waitangi Tribunal report that the “grossly unequal reoffending rates” breached Crown obligations under the Treaty has made that priority more urgent.

This article was first published in the May 20, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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