Story: Prisons

Page 3. Developing a national prison system, 1880–1949

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The Hume era, 1880–1909

Following the abolition of the provinces in 1876, the colonial government set about establishing a standardised national prison system. Captain Arthur Hume, recruited from England, became New Zealand’s first inspector general of prisons in 1880. Hume introduced a single system throughout prisons, based on British Prison Commissioner Edmund Du Cane’s strict regime of efficiency, economy and uniformity. Prisons were to be a ‘reformative deterrent’,1 with conditions inside harsher than those the prisoner experienced when free.

Rations were cut, smoking was forbidden and communication between prisoners was restricted. Remote prison work camps replaced public work schemes in towns. Prison education was restricted to basic reading, writing and manual trade training. Hume established a system of promoting prisoners through a series of classes, with privileges gained through good conduct and hard work. Overcrowded prisons made it difficult to operate this system in practice. The first national probation system was introduced in 1886, allowing first offenders to be placed on probation rather than sent to prison. Probation imposed a set of conditions to be overseen by a probation officer. However, it applied only to first offenders and was little used in its early years. Hume also tried, with limited success, to keep prisons from being a dumping ground for debtors, drunkards and ‘lunatics’.

Misery at Milford

In December 1890, 45 prisoners and six prison officers were dispatched to Milford Sound to construct Humeville, a prison camp named after Inspector General of Prisons Arthur Hume, and to build a road to Te Anau. Prisoners and guards suffered from the rain, mud, sandflies, poor food and shoddy equipment. In December 1891 prisoners Henry Wilson and James McGuire escaped, crossing the lakes and mountains between Milford and the head of Lake Te Anau. They were recaptured in ‘a woeful plight’2 after five days of travelling. Humeville was abandoned in June 1892, before the road’s completion.

Building new prisons

During Hume’s tenure the government embarked on a major prison-building programme. Work began on the Mt Cook Prison building in Wellington in 1882, although Māori prisoners from Parihaka had been held on the site in 1879. The new prison building was converted into a military barracks in 1900, but a smaller prison remained open at Mt Cook until 1921. Dunedin Prison, completed in 1897, operated until 2007.

The first prisoners were transferred to Auckland’s Mt Eden Gaol in 1888. Originally intended as a maximum security facility, the prison remained in use until 2011.

Prison reform, 1909–24

Hume retired in 1909, at a time when crime and imprisonment rates were increasing. Minister of Justice John Findlay set about modernising the prison system. Prison reformers were active at this time. They included the National Council of Women, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and two outspoken clergymen, James Kayll and Charles Hoggins. The idea spread that prisons should ‘cure’ inmates of their criminal tendencies, rather than just deter them from committing crimes.

The Crimes Amendment Act 1910 allowed for reformative sentences. A Prison Board could determine the length of the sentence a prisoner served. If the board considered a prisoner to be reformed they could be released on probation. The board could also keep ‘habitual criminals’ in jail indefinitely.

Charles Matthews, controller general of prisons from 1912 to 1924, continued with reforms. School teachers were appointed to prisons to teach basic skills, and from 1921 inmates were paid a small wage to assist their dependents. Prisons became classified according to the classes of prisoner they were designed to hold. Prison farms became the main form of prison labour, reflecting the rural interests of the Reform government.

Prison classifications, 1917

In 1917 New Zealand’s prisons were classified as follows:

Mt Eden: the first prison for maximum-security prisoners
New Plymouth: sex offenders
Waikeria: reformative detainees and reformable hard-labour men
Wellington: reception centre and short-term prisoners
Napier, Wanganui and Lyttelton: short-term prisoners
Paparua: general prison for the South Island
Addington: female prisoners
Rotoaira: originally used for habitual criminals but converted to hold military defaulters
Kāingaroa: military defaulters
Invercargill: Borstal for young offenders up to 25 years old.

Dallard administration, 1925–49

Bert Dallard was controller general of prisons from 1925 until 1949. Essentially conservative, Dallard believed that prison reforms had gone too far. He tried to make prisons as self-sufficient and economical as possible, developing prison farms into more productive units – which allowed them to fare better than many other government institutions during the 1930s economic depression. The late 1940s saw a growing public awareness of the need for prison reform, but there was little change to the system until Dallard retired.

  1. Quoted in Greg Newbold, The problem of prison: corrections reform in New Zealand since 1840. Wellington: Dunmore, 2007, p. 29 Back
  2. Otago Daily Times, 29 December 1891, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Prisons - Developing a national prison system, 1880–1949', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 20 Jun 2012