Kōrero: Prisons

Whārangi 4. Prisons in a changing society, 1949–1990

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An era of reform, 1949–70

Sam Barnett, the secretary of justice, was in charge of the prison system from 1949 to 1960. He inherited a system little changed since the 1920s. The ministers of justice under whom Barnett served took minimal interest in prison management, giving him considerable leeway to carry out reforms.

Reforms in the 1950s included:

  • a wider range of education and trade training for prisoners
  • improved rations
  • the appointment of prison psychologists
  • improved library, recreation and welfare services.

Attempts to reform the penal system were continued from 1960 by Minister of Justice Ralph Hanan and Secretary of Justice John Robson. Among the reforms they introduced were periodic detention (community-based sentences involving supervised work at a work centre) and work parole (inmates near the end of their sentences doing daytime work in the community).

Prison population explosion

The largest obstacle to the reform attempts of the 1950s and 1960s was the substantial increase in the prison population, mirroring increasing crime rates. The same period also saw the Māori prison population increasing, to over a third of all prisoners by 1970. Prison overcrowding and the under-resourcing of the penal system became major issues from the mid-1950s. This situation was made worse by low morale among prison officers and a high staff turnover.

Escapes of the Mt Eden band

In 1958 it was revealed that a group of Mt Eden prisoners had been escaping from their cells at night and returning to them before daybreak. The escapees, all members of the prison band, committed burglaries and probably at least one rape. The escapes, once discovered, were covered up, with one prisoner claiming responsibility for all the break-outs. The escape scandal made Minister of Justice Rex Mason cautious about approving further prison reforms.

Mt Eden riot, 1965

In July 1965 two Mt Eden inmates tried to escape using a set of specially made keys and a gun they had smuggled into the prison. The escape attempt failed but a number of prison officers were taken hostage. A large-scale riot ensued and the interior of the prison was burned out. Mt Eden was surrounded by armed police and soldiers. The prisoners surrendered 33 hours later, without fatalities, but Mt Eden was temporarily unusable. Prisoners were temporarily held in other prisons throughout the country.


Since the 1950s politicians had been promising to pull down the outdated Mt Eden Prison and build a new maximum-security facility. Land at Pāremoremo, north of Auckland, had been purchased in 1962, but building progress was slow. Work was speeded up after the 1965 Mt Eden riot. Pāremoremo maximum security prison, officially known as Auckland Prison, opened in March 1969. High prisoner numbers meant that the old Mt Eden Prison stayed in use until 2011.

Treated like animals

Joe Moana, a gang member and prisoner at Pāremoremo, explained what he thought of prison guards: ‘[A] prison screw … comes over, tries to get to know you, tries to get on with you as good as he can … but my view is they’re all fucking wankers mate. They’ll talk to you one day, give you a good yarn and that, and the next day they’re putting you on a charge. Then every night they lock you in the cells, that’s their job. Then they go back to the guardroom, throw down their keys on the table and say, “That’s it. My job’s finished. The animals are locked up.”’1

Drugs, gangs and violence

The increasing use of illegal drugs from the late 1960s led to growing numbers of people being jailed for drug offences. Many continued using drugs in prison, introducing other prisoners to drug use. By the mid-1970s drugs were easily available and widely used in many of the country’s prisons. In the late 1970s prison authorities introduced searches by drug dogs, drug tests for prisoners and restrictions on materials being given to prisoners by their visitors.

By the 1980s gang members – many of them of Māori or Pacific ethnicity – made up a significant proportion of the prison population. Tensions and violence between members of rival gangs became more common. From this time on the prevention of gang violence among prisoners had to be a major factor in prison organisation.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in Bill Payne, Staunch: inside New Zealand’s gangs. Auckland: Reed, 1997, p. 142. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Peter Clayworth, 'Prisons - Prisons in a changing society, 1949–1990', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/prisons/page-4 (accessed 22 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Peter Clayworth, i tāngia i te 20 Jun 2012