A glimpse of life on the inside – a trip to Mt Eden Corrections Facility

As readers will no doubt remember, private service provider Serco lost Mt Eden Corrections Facility (MECF) from its contract in June last year, after the shocking release of footage of an in-prison “fight club”.

ADLS recently provided the opportunity for a small group of Equal Justice Project (EJP) executive members and volunteers to take a tour of the prison.

Our first stop was at the “Charlie” unit, where we entered the command centre, with its multiple TV screens, which oversees two separate facilities designed to keep prisoners safe. The first is the “mainstream” section, where the majority of offenders go, and is almost entirely comprised of violent offenders and gang members.

The second is the “segregated” section, colloquially referred to as “segs”. This is designed to keep certain types of prisoners safe – many are first-time offenders, usually non-violent and unaffiliated with any gangs.

While we were there, the two units were in lockdown while certain trustworthy prisoners, who are allotted responsibilities as cleaners and allowed more freedom, cleaned the units. The officers explained however that some inmates abuse this position from time to time.

They also explained that one officer is responsible for constantly taking the “muster”, i.e. counting the prisoners to ensure that all are accounted for and in the correct places at all times.

We then went to the medical ward, where prison medical staff explained that prisoners receive free healthcare, with waiting times usually no more than a week (visits can be immediate if care is urgently needed). The head of medical staff explained that the prison’s facilities are like visiting a GP, while serious health problems are sent to Auckland Hospital (which is apparently quite used to treating handcuffed and accompanied prisoners).

There is also a separate unit for those suffering from mental health problems, who have been sectioned under the Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act 1992. Extra care is taken to protect those prisoners who are vulnerable to self-harming or who have expressed a tendency to suicide. Many of the mental health unit prisoners are homeless and in need of a shower and a haircut, the officer explained to us, which can sometimes result in a drastic change in appearance, and attitude, after they are put on regular medication.

Leaving the medical ward, we passed through a series of tunnels to enter the new section of the prison, which houses younger offenders. In comparison to the “Charlie” unit, the youth unit is much more hospitable. It is about 20 years newer and has far superior natural lighting, with a foyer that smells like bubble-gum (thanks to an industrial cleaning agent). Youth are put in this newer building in the hopes of giving them a better rehabilitative experience and trying to break the crime cycle.

We were told that a lot of the 17 to 20 year olds who come into Mt Eden are essentially “born into” the prison system, with their fathers and grandfathers also former residents, the young offenders having visited their relatives in prison when they were younger.

We got the impression that the officers become invested in many of their charges and hope to see them succeed. Certainly, every one of the staff we spoke to was kind and respectful of the prisoners in their care. One senior officer said that his experience of working at Mt Eden had changed his perspective on violent criminals – “Some of these guys’ back stories … they never stood a chance”. Our guiding officer also noted with concern that prisoner numbers were increasing and funding levels were not keeping pace.

We ended our trip by speaking with the education staff. They explained their “Pathways” programme for prisoners, which provides courses in critical thinking skills, life skills and physical courses such as yoga, which assist prisoners to calm themselves and to sleep better. They also offer NCEA courses to allow prisoners to continue or resume their education. This is all part of a plan to help them get on the “highway” out of prison – with “no u-turns” allowed. However, as most prisoners at MECF are on remand, our guide noted that it can be difficult to get or keep them on track when many were not there long enough to achieve as much as they would like.

The prison tour was an eye-opening, behind-the-scenes look at MECF. The officers were friendly, candid and honest about rehabilitation challenges and the reality of prison life. All those who attended expressed gratitude for the experience, and the EJP would like to thank ADLS for this fantastic opportunity.

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