27 Apr 2021

The legacy of the Waikeria Prison riots

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 27 April 2021
Waikeria prison

Waikeria prison Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

The fires that set Waikato's Waikeria Prison alight over summer may be out, but the impact of the protests there is ongoing.

There are now three investigations underway, as well as a High Court civil rights case by the prisoners against the Attorney General and Corrections, and other claims against the Crown in the Waitangi Tribunal.

The draft for the first investigation by Corrections is completed and is currently under review by its National Commissioner.

Public debate about how prisons are run and their place in society has also heated up.

In today’s podcast, The Detail's Jessie Chiang looks at the two fiercely opposed narratives in the six-day standoff between prisoners and Corrections and how the incident has become a flashpoint for debate.

1 News reporter Kim Baker Wilson covered the uprising when it broke out on December 29 last year.

"We have all those reports from the Ombudsman and the like talking about the conditions at Waikeria Prison ... but it wasn't a thing at the back of our minds was it?" he says.

"This [the uprising] certainly thrust it all on the radar for so many of us and made us pay attention."

Smoke coming from Waikeria Prison, on the 6th day of a destructive protest.

Photo: RNZ/ Riley Kennedy

The prisoners took over the top jail, mostly used for remand, and lit several fires, destroying the facility.

Their allegations of dirty water and bedding, and bad conditions, have been strongly rejected by Corrections which insists there is "no excuse" for what the prisoners did.

Seventeen men were charged with arson and disorder-related offences over the standoff and are now going through the court system.

Baker Wilson talks about the difficulty of trying to tell a story with such conflicting sides.

Chiang also speaks to Armon Tamatea, a former Corrections clinical psychologist.

He's now a senior lecturer at Waikato University's school of psychology and currently leading a research project called Nga Tūmanakotanga, which looks at prison violence.

As a part of the research, Tamatea was at Waikeria Prison about a month before the uprising and describes what he saw there.

He gives his take on how much of an impact the reviews will have on changing prison culture.

Tamatea also challenges New Zealand to think about the part we as a society plays to reintegrate prisoners back into the community.

"We have high trust in our schools, we have high trust in our hospitals, I would think, do we have the same level of trust in our prison systems? I would suggest probably not," he says.