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by Peter Clayworth

New Zealand’s first jails, in the 1840s, were flimsy huts built from wood or raupō (bulrush), and prisoners often had to be chained up to prevent escape. In the 2000s the prison system aimed to rehabilitate prisoners and prevent reoffending, but released prisoners being reimprisoned remained a problem – as did the high Māori imprisonment rate.

New Zealand’s prisons

Imprisonment rate

In May 2011 New Zealand had a prison population of 199 per 100,000 of the population, or 8,755 people out of a population of 4.41 million. This was the eighth-highest rate in the 34 countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Prisons and the prison population

In December 2011 there were 7,934 men in prison, including 1,666 on remand awaiting trial. Of the 499 women in prison, 99 were on remand. Around 40% of people in prison were under 30 years of age. The ethnicity of prisoners was 51.4% Māori, 32.9% European, 11.5% Pacific Islanders and 2.7% Asian.

New Zealand had 16 prisons for male prisoners and three for women.

In March 2012 it was announced that two older prisons, Wellington (Mt Crawford) and New Plymouth would close, along with the older units of some other prisons.

Sentencing and the prison population

The general crime rate declined and stabilised between 1993 and 2011, although violent crime increased. The number of people imprisoned rose substantially over the same period, from 3,763 in 1993 to 8,433 in December 2011.

Following a number of high-profile violent crimes in the 1990s, the Sentencing Act 2002 and Parole Act 2002 were passed. The acts allowed for tougher sentences and stricter parole conditions. While the average length of sentences did not increase greatly, the likelihood of receiving a prison sentence did. In response to the subsequent growth in the prison population four new prisons were opened between 2005 and 2007 – three men’s prisons, at Ngāwhā in Northland, Meremere in Waikato and Milton in Otago, and a women’s prison at Manukau. From 2010 some prisoners were housed in shipping containers to ease the pressure on existing prisons.

A new normal

In a 2006 article Tim Selwyn described life as an inmate at Hawke’s Bay prison. ‘You might be out of your comfort zone but there’s some things you’ll wind up doing just to fit in. You will find yourself mimicking the routines of the other prisoners, whether you’re conscious of it or not. You’ll find yourself tapping on the pipes to warn your neighbours that the screws are making their rounds; playing touch with fully tattooed gang members and swapping dirty anecdotes with a cell full of giggling drug dealers – it’s all part of normal life now.’1


Parole is early release from prison under terms set down by the Parole Board. Offenders sentenced to two years or more in prison become eligible for parole after serving a certain portion of their sentence. The Parole Board makes a decision after assessing any risks to the community. If the board does not release a prisoner eligible for parole, it is required to meet with that prisoner again once every 12 months. The conditions imposed on paroled prisoners include:

  • reporting to a probation officer every 72 hours
  • not living at a prohibited address
  • not moving address without the probation officer’s permission
  • not associating with anyone prohibited by the probation officer
  • taking part in rehabilitative and reintegration assessment, if so directed.

Private prisons

In the 1990s the National government opened prison management up to private companies. The Auckland Central Remand Prison, at Mt Eden, was contracted out to Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) in 1999. That same year a Labour-led government was elected which opposed private prisons. Mt Eden reverted to public control in July 2005. Upon their re-election in 2008, National revived the private prisons policy. In January 2011 the British company Serco Pacific was contracted to run the Mt Eden Corrections Facility for six years. In 2012 it was announced that a new private prison would be built at Wiri, South Auckland, to open in 2015.

Supporters of private prisons see them as bringing experience and innovations into New Zealand from overseas. Opponents of privatisation, including the Corrections Association (the prison officers’ union), argue that prisons are a core public service that should not be sold off to the highest bidder.

No smoking

The Prisons Act 1882 banned tobacco in prisons, on the recommendation of Arthur Hume, the inspector general of prisons. From 1902 prisoners sentenced to more than three months’ hard labour were issued with an ounce (28 grams) of tobacco a week. Beginning in 1925, all prisoners who smoked were issued with a tobacco allowance, on condition of good behaviour. In more recent years smoking was allowed in cells and exercise yards. In July 2011 a total smoking ban was imposed in New Zealand prisons. Corrections Minister Judith Collins said the intent was to improve inmate and staff health and to prevent arson.

Problems with prisons

Prison is an extremely expensive way of dealing with crime. In March 2010 it cost, on average, $90,977 to keep a prisoner in jail for a year. Prisons continue to have problems with violence, suicide, drugs and gangs. On average prisoners have poorer mental and physical health than the general population. Many have problems with addiction, low educational achievement, lack of employment skills and dysfunctional family relationships.

The prison system has come in for a range of criticism. Some commentators maintain that prisons are too soft, sentences are too short and parole is given to easily. Others have argued that prison is generally not an effective way of dealing with crime, particularly petty or non-violent offences.

Rehabilitation and recidivism

The Department of Corrections runs most of New Zealand’s prisons. It aims to reduce reoffending and rehabilitate prisoners, through a number of rehabilitation, drug-treatment and employment-training programmes. Māori focus units are aimed specifically at the high proportion of Māori prisoners. The Kia Marama programme treats child-sex offenders. Despite the range of programmes there remains a high rate of recidivism – in the early 2000s almost 40% of the inmates released from prison were reimprisoned within two years of their release.

    • Tim Selwyn, ‘Surviving on the inside’, Sunday Star Times, 8 October 2006, p. C4. Back

Early prisons, 1840–1879

Imprisonment as punishment

Imprisonment as a form of punishment did not exist in traditional Māori society. In Europe before the late 18th century the primary forms of punishment were execution, physical punishment, fines or deportation. Prisons were largely used as holding institutions rather than as a punishment in themselves. From 1718 to 1776 many British convicts were transported to North America. With the American revolution and independence, Britain was forced to abandon this practice. In the following years sentences of imprisonment began to be regularly imposed as a punishment. Transportation resumed in 1788, when Australia became a penal colony, but imprisonment had also become an established punishment.

Transported convicts

Some of New Zealand’s earliest European settlers may have been escaped convicts. James Cavanagh escaped from a convict ship that called into New Zealand in 1804. Charlotte Badger and Catharine Hagerty arrived in the Bay of Islands in 1806 after mutineers seized the ship they were travelling on from Sydney to Tasmania and brought them to New Zealand. Many of the early sealers around New Zealand’s coasts were former convicts. So were some of the early shore whalers, including Jacky Guard, who established Te Awaiti whaling station in the Marlborough Sounds in 1827.

Reformers and the penitentiary

British reformers such as John Howard, Elizabeth Fry and Jeremy Bentham were active in drawing attention to appalling prison conditions in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th century. During this same period Quakers in Pennsylvania devised the idea of the penitentiary, a place where prisoners were held in isolation from each other. This was supposed to cancel out bad influences, giving inmates time to reflect on and repent of their crimes.

Imprisoning the mentally ill

In early colonial New Zealand – as in Britain at the time – the mentally ill were often treated as people who should be imprisoned. In July 1842 Felton Mathew, the chief magistrate of Auckland, imposed a one-month prison sentence on a man who had been ‘wandering about the town in a state of mental imbecility – with no means of support – no employment, and a nuisance to the respectable inhabitants of the town.’1

Early New Zealand jails

New Zealand’s first jails were set up in the 1840s in Russell (now Okiato), Kororāreka (now Russell), the Hokianga, Auckland, Wellington, Akaroa, Nelson, New Plymouth and Whanganui. These first jails were usually wood or raupō (bulrush) huts, so flimsy that prisoners often had to be chained up to prevent them escaping. While technically under the control of the governor, in most settler communities the first jails were built by the local administration.

Gaolers (jailers) ran the jails, answering to sheriffs appointed by the governor. Jails were underfunded and overcrowded with poor facilities. Prisoners were crammed together regardless of their age, gender or crimes. Debtors, the homeless and the mentally ill were held alongside dangerous criminals. It was thought that the harsh conditions of imprisonment would act as a deterrent to future offending. Prison was seldom regarded as a way to rehabilitate offenders into society.


Between 1840 and 1854, 100 people were transported from New Zealand to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). Most had been convicted of property offences, but there were also five Māori from Whanganui, who were transported for rebellion against the Queen.

Basic jail

The New Plymouth jail in the early 1850s consisted of two cells and an airing yard. An average of seven or eight prisoners a night were locked in two damp, poorly ventilated and congested cells. Escape was relatively easy. The gaoler was not on duty at night and the prison door was secured by a peg, rather than a lock. While the peg could not be reached from inside the jail, it was easy for a prisoner to arrange for friends to release them at night.

Provincial control

With the formation of the provinces in 1853, prison administration passed to provincial governments. During the provincial era, from 1853 to 1876, there were four major prisons, at Auckland, Wellington, Lyttelton and Dunedin. By 1876 there were 30 minor jails around the country. A prison census carried out in 1878 showed 641 prisoners in the four major prisons, 343 in the minor jails and 70 held in local lockups.

Jails were a low priority for provincial spending, and remained overcrowded and substandard. Prison labour gangs were regularly used for road-building and other public works. The prison system faced mounting criticism from the late 1850s onwards, particularly from the judiciary. A royal commission in 1868 called for a centralised colonial prison system, a unified standard of conditions and the abolition of public work gangs. No action was taken on these recommendations until after the abolition of the provinces in 1876.

    • Quoted in R. I. M. Burnett, Hard labour, hard fare and a hard bed: New Zealand’s search for its own penal philosophy. Wellington: National Archives of New Zealand, 1995, p. 31. Back

Developing a national prison system, 1880–1949

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.

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

Prisons in a changing society, 1949–1990

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.

  1. Quoted in Bill Payne, Staunch: inside New Zealand’s gangs. Auckland: Reed, 1997, p. 142. Back

Māori imprisonment

Early years

From the time of British colonisation Māori were officially subject to British law. In practice this generally only applied when Māori were in areas of major Pākehā settlement. Elsewhere, Māori traditional systems of control continued to predominate. Throughout the 19th century the percentage of prisoners who were Māori was very low, usually less than 3% of the total prison population. There were short periods where large numbers of Māori were imprisoned, such as prisoners of war in the 1860s and the protesters arrested at Parihaka in the 1880s.

Gradual rise, 1900–45

In the early 20th century the number of Māori imprisoned began to rise. The Māori prison population reached 11% of the total prison population by 1936. Māori urbanisation, accelerated by the Second World War, was clearly a factor in the increasing number of Māori prisoners. In 1945 Māori made up 21% of prison admissions, at a time when they were 6% of the total population.

Explosion in numbers, 1950–2011

From 1955 the proportion of prisoners who were Māori increased dramatically. By 1971 Māori were 40% of the prison population, while forming around 10% of the country’s total population. Over this period the Department of Justice was forced to acknowledge that Māori crime and imprisonment were major issues. Since 1980 Māori have consistently made up about half the prison population.

A Māori prisoner’s view

One Māori woman prisoner commented, ‘Sticking us in jail ain’t gonna do nothing ... you take us away from the community and then when we get out we don’t know what else to do ... and we go back to doing what we did before ... and when we come back [to prison] okay, we know how it goes, we’ve been here before. They’re doing it all wrong – thinking why their jails are filling up … Why stick us in jail if there’s nothing to help us.’1

In the 2000s Māori continued to make up a disproportionately high percentage of the prison population. In 2011 Māori were around 15% of the New Zealand population, whereas 51% of those imprisoned were Māori. In 2009, 56% of women prisoners were Māori. A 2007 report put the Māori imprisonment rate at around 700 per 100,000 of the population.

The high rate of Māori imprisonment is the result of a complex range of factors, including the larger proportion of Māori in lower socio-economic groups, the higher percentage of young people in the Māori population, higher rates of Māori unemployment, the ongoing effects of urbanisation and the impact of gang culture. Some critics argue that the justice system is stacked against Māori at all stages, making Māori more likely than non-Māori to be arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced to prison.

Imprisonment rates are of concern for their impact on Māori communities and on broader New Zealand society. One response by the Department of Corrections has been to establish Māori Focus Units. These are open to medium- and minimum-security prisoners, and aim to change prisoners’ behaviour through greater understanding of tikanga Māori (correct ways of acting). The department also has a policy of consulting with Māori community groups and trying to recruit more Māori staff.

    • V. Owen, ‘Whanake Rangatahi: programmes and services to address Maori youth offending.’ Social Policy Journal of New Zealand 16 (July 2001), pp. 175–176. Back

Women in prison

19th century

Women have always made up only a small proportion of prisoners in New Zealand. In the 19th century few New Zealand jails had separate facilities for female prisoners. Women were open to harassment from both warders and fellow prisoners. Until the appointment of matrons in some prisons in the 1860s, most prison staff were men. Women were sometimes imprisoned with their small children, who were placed in an extremely vulnerable situation.

While relatively few women were imprisoned, female prisoners were widely regarded as incorrigible ‘degenerates’, beyond hope of reformation. Prostitutes often featured among the women prisoners, particularly those known as ‘rowdy women’, who lived lives of public drinking and disorderly behaviour.

Separate facilities

In the 1890s groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the National Council of Women argued that separate prisons should be established for women. Arthur Hume, the inspector general of prisons, rejected this idea on the grounds that there were too few women prisoners.

In 1913, four years after Hume retired, New Zealand’s first women’s prison was established at Addington. A women’s reformatory was opened at Point Halswell, Wellington, in 1920. Arohata Girls’ Borstal (later Arohata Women’s Prison) was opened in 1944. Most women continued to be held in separate sections of mixed prisons. The assumption remained that most female offenders were incorrigible habitual criminals – so the pace of reform for women prisoners was even slower than that for men. The training programmes in women’s prisons were geared towards domestic tasks, with the assumption that women should be mothers and homemakers.

Expansion of facilities, 1950–90

The women’s prison at Addington was closed in 1950. Women prisoners were then held in special sections of Paparua, Mt Eden and Dunedin prisons. In the 1960s plans to build new women’s prisons were put on hold while Pāremoremo was being built. Women inmates at Dunedin Prison rioted in 1964, in disgust at poor conditions. A new women’s prison was opened at Paparua, near Christchurch, in 1974. There were some complaints that, as the majority of prisoners came from the North Island, the location made it difficult for families, particularly children, to visit.

Arohata continued as a girls’ borstal, but was converted into a youth prison in 1981 and a women’s prison in 1987.

Babies in prison

During the 20th century prison regulations meant that women were not allowed to keep babies with them in prison. From 2002, in Arohata and Christchurch women’s prisons, mothers who met certain criteria were able to live in self-care units with their babies until the children were six months old. The Corrections (Mothers with Babies) Amendment Act 2008 came into effect in 2011, allowing eligible mothers to keep their children with them until the age of two.

Women prisoners

In 2011 women were only around 6% of the prison population. The number of women prisoners increased from 98 in June 1986 to 515 in September 2011. In 2009 the most common term of sentence for women was one to three years, compared with two to three years for men.

Many women enter prison with a wide range of economic, social and health problems. A third of the women who serve prison sentences later return to jail, as opposed to half of men.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Peter Clayworth, 'Prisons', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Peter Clayworth, i tāngia i te 20 o Hune 2012