Five years ago the Otago Corrections Facility opened near
Milton. Kim Dungey looks at what goes on behind the wall and
what impact the prison has had on its nearest neighbours.
They sit opposite each other - the career public servant and
the career criminal. One has never been a smoker, the other
is a recovering addict. One wears a shirt and tie, the other
has shorts, tattoos and the hint of a swagger.
Prison manager Jack Harrison and inmate Sam are meeting for
the first time. Later today, Harrison will head to his office
- where staff have left him chocolate biscuits - and home to
his wife and sons. Sam will return to his 4m by 3m cell and a
sandwich. He misses his two children desperately.
Yet despite their differences, the pair have found common
ground. Both believe that even behind bars, people can change
for the better.
Harrison (51), did a business degree, working for the
Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Works before becoming
a finance manager for the Corrections Department and then
manager of Tongariro/Rangipo prison. In 2005, he moved for a
''three-year gig'' to the Otago Corrections Facility being
built at Milburn, but liked Otago people so much he stayed.
Sam, whose name has been changed for this story, grew up
around gangs, drugs and violence. By age 6, he says, he hated
himself and everyone around him. He was expelled from schools
and encountered drive-by shootings. At 16, he was doing his
first, three-year, lag in prison.
''I fell in love with cannabis, then harder drugs. I had a
pretty good life and decided to trade it in for a gang life.
That's what led me here.''
As the 26-year-old describes his progress from hostile
high-security inmate to a worker in the prison kitchen, the
drop in security classification that allowed him to enter its
drug treatment unit (DTU) and finally his role mentoring
other addicts, Harrison is receptive.
''This is what I do the job for ... There's a better life
than being here.''
Within the prison itself, the changes have been more subtle.
Staff and inmate numbers have been boosted by double-bunking,
the Government's solution to a rising prison population. The
facility has become one of only two to provide two-week and
four-week drug and alcohol intervention and was the first in
the country to run the three-month therapeutic programme that
Sam recently completed.
One of four new prisons opened between 2005 and 2007, it is
also dramatically different in design to the region's former
jail, a 19th-century enclosed-courtyard prison that was grim,
dark and claustrophobic.
The new prison is enclosed by a 5.2m-high fence, a secure
perimeter that allows for a more open environment inside.
Cell blocks are set in green lawns, surrounded by the
kitchen, workshops and classrooms. It's a bit like a small
town, providing accommodation, health care, education and
employment, Harrison says. A doctor visits weekly and a
dentist, fortnightly. There's a gymnasium, a rugby field and
But the physical environment and the palatable name do not
alter the fact this is a prison. Everyone from visitors to
staff must pass through a metal detector and have their
belongings X-rayed. Every movement is carefully
choreographed: ''We can't have certain people in the same
area as other people at the same time because sparks will
fly. So there's a lot of `Hurry up' and `Wait' and a lot of
standing at gates ... It can seem frustrating but it's all
designed around keeping people safe.''
Harrison is proud the prison still looks new and has not a
hint of graffiti. He doubts it will ever lose the ''Milton
Hilton'' tag it earned for its underfloor heating and the
flatscreen televisions in its wings. But when you close the
door of a cell on somebody, it doesn't matter how ''flash''
it is, he says.
''It's still a pretty small room to be spending a lot of
On this particular day there are 421 prisoners, including 59
who are on remand and separated from sentenced prisoners by a
Prison mission positive''They range in age from 17 to 82,''
he says, ''from guys who have been in prison more than 20
years to guys who will come in today and be bailed
About 130 have come from other areas because of the
programmes on offer or the pressure on beds elsewhere. Before
their release, they will return to the prisons they came
Despite some staff initially viewing it with apprehension,
double-bunking has not caused problems, he says. Staff gauge
prisoners' compatibility before moving them into a shared
cell and would certainly not put ''a red with a blue''.
However, men from different gangs are generally housed in the
The ban on smoking - now 17 months old - has also gone well,
though there is a black market for everything in a prison and
the price of a cigarette is ''quite high''.
Prisoners who have demonstrated good behaviour and stayed on
track with their offender plans get longer unlocked hours and
access to more activities. High security prisoners are
officially out of their cells up to eight hours a day. Others
are unlocked from 7.15am to 8.30pm, spending much of the time
in programmes that are designed to address the causes of
their offending and to prepare them for release.
These range from cognitive-behavioural courses to ones
focused on literacy and numeracy. Prisoners can earn NCEA
credits, work towards industry-related qualifications or
study for tertiary qualifications. One of the country's
inmates recently completed a bachelor of arts degree.
About 100 prisoners work in the kitchen, laundry, workshops
and dairy farm, with 50 to 60 more in unit-based jobs, such
In the unlikely event he gained more funding, Harrison would
like to keep the workshops open past 4.30pm and train more
people. Prisoners who find work once released are less likely
to reoffend, he says, ''and for every one who doesn't, that's
eight or nine victims who don't exist''.
In the light engineering workshop, the men are building farm
equipment as well as five large skips a week for demolition
jobs in Christchurch.
In the timber joinery workshop, music blares as inmates in
T-shirts and overalls wield paintbrushes and hammers. Next
year they plan to build a relocatable house but close to
Christmas, they are making toys for community groups and
working on their own projects. Some have carved their
children's names into small picnic tables. A few are making
beds to sleep on when released.
Other minimum security prisoners who are nearing the end of
their sentences are released each day to work in the
community. Some bike to their workplaces, others hiring
scooters for a few dollars a week or driving their own cars
bought from their earnings.
The prisoners are paid a wage by their employers, from which
the Government deducts board and any outstanding child
support, fines or reparation.
Despite the tough job market, 18 prisoners are on the
''release to work'' scheme at present and almost 200 have
taken part in the past five years. Nationally, nearly half
retain their jobs after release.
Four-bedroom flats inside the wire are also designed to help
longer-serving offenders reintegrate into the community.
Taking turns to cook and clean and escorted to supermarkets
to buy groceries, the men learn the skills they will need to
For some it is the first time in 20 years that they have had
to make choices about when to get up, what time to go to bed,
how much to spend on food or what to have for dinner,
''A lot of the breaking-rocks, bread-and-water brigade were
aghast at the idea of self-care units because they provide
quite nice accommodation ... but it scares the hell out of
some guys because they haven't had to make too many decisions
in all the time they've been with us.''
BACK at the 60-bed drug treatment unit, Sam is describing a
different challenge - the struggle to be drug-free. Some
people, he reckons, have a ''lot of jail left in them''.
''It's hard because there's so many negative people around in
this environment. It's a full-on tug-of-war for the people
[contemplating change] ... '' he says, adding that
withdrawing from a gang in such a place is also ''extremely
Using any drugs he could get his hands on, apart from
downers, led to sleeplessness, psychotic thoughts and
paranoia. Now he enjoys helping others who are struggling
like he did.
''It sounds cheesy as,'' he says, shaking his head and
allowing himself a smile.
''If I'd seen myself doing this two and a-half years ago, I'd
have punched myself over.''
Harrison estimates up to 90% of offenders have problems with
their behaviour when under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
One who knows from experience is Kevin Pearce, the unit's
clinical manager who was a heroin addict and prison inmate
for 30 years before studying to be a social worker and
He and his eight staff work for CareNZ, part of a charitable
foundation which has run the three-month programme here since
2010. Until then, Otago prisoners with addiction issues could
only be treated in Christchurch.
Being in a therapeutic community, the men are not allowed to
mix with anyone else, Pearce says. Mornings are spent in
therapy and psycho-education classes but social interaction
in the afternoons is also considered important.
''At the beginning they're always a bit reactive and
antisocial and we try to roll with that. But the further they
go through the programme, the more is expected of them ...''
Those going through a DTU are about 6% less likely to be
reconvicted in a year than prisoners who have not had
treatment. And Sam knows staying clean will not be easy. Even
moving to a less rigid environment inside the wall presents
''In high security, you're lucky to get two hours out a day.
You come here and there's a lot of time on your hands ...
That's when most people get into mischief.''
To keep them busy, Sam has taken fellow prisoners for
workouts and organised a DTU Olympics. Now he shows Harrison
and principal corrections officer Martin Potter a sketch of a
chin-up bar that could be made in the workshops. The men
promise to see what they can do.
It's a sight that would irk those who think our prisons are
too soft and should be fundamentally about punishment.
Harrison takes a different view: ''I firmly believe that
we're in the business of trying to rehabilitate people and to
motivate them to make the right choices,'' he says.
''Locking them up behind a door 23 hours a day ain't going to
help us as a community.''