Friday, July 20, 2012

The Mt Eden Prison Riots

It was 2am on 20 July 1965.
An escape attempt was underway in Auckland's Mt.Eden maximum security prison...
the prison in Lauder Road is one of NZ's oldest prisons, dating back to the 1880s. An imposing, castle-like structure of basalt rock, it was based on English models and a belief that prison life should be unpleasant. By the 1960s, things had progressed from the floggings and dark cells of the previous century. But not at Mt Eden: prisoners still languished in solitary confinement with no access to hobbies or recreation. Recent clamp-downs on
conditions, along with problems of overcrowding, contributed to what happened next...
The two masked escapees were discovered by a warder who was clubbed to the ground. The men took two hostages, and started unlocking other cells. Chaos ensued as the liberated inmates lit fires and fuelled them with oil, furniture and their own personal effects. Firemen who arrived to quench the flames had to retreat under a barrage of bricks and other missiles (one of the rioters' ringleaders was 'Diamond' Jim Shepherd, later involved in the Mr Asia drug syndicate)...
As the fires spread, warders courageously entered the burning cell blocks to see that no prisoners were trapped. A cordon of armed police, warders, and troops stood guard round the prison in the glare of hastily rigged floodlights. The riot was a sensational event for the pupils and staff of the two neighbouring boys' secondary schools, Auckland Grammar School and St Peter's College. Armed police, warders and SAS troops ringed the prison, and used warning shots and high-powered hoses to discourage break-outs. Eventually lack of food, fuel and shelter took its toll, and the rioters surrendered after 33hrs, at 10.45am on 21 July. By that time the old jail was a blackened shell. All 293 prisoners were still in custody.
The rebellious mood spread to Wellington’s Mt Crawford Prison and Paparua Prison in Christchurch. On 24 July two convicts made an abortive attempt to set fire to part of Mt Crawford. The following day at Paparua, a riot broke out during a chapel service. A fierce fight followed in which six warders were injured. The east wing of the prison was set on fire, and the revolt was quelled only after tear-gas was used. More than 40 warders and policemen suffered superficial injuries.
Back in Auckland, the damage at Mt Eden was extensive. Basements, storerooms, the kitchen, chapel, watch house and 61 cells were destroyed, and the prison roof was extensively damaged. The riot was followed by further calls for the prison to be demolished. But due to a shortage of alternative accommodation, it was gradually rebuilt as a temporary measure, although much of it was not restored to its original condition.
Today, Mt Eden is a medium-security facility for up to 521 male inmates. A modern privately-run prison (controversisal for both its cost and proximity to the Southern Motorway) has been built on-site. The old prison building, now administrative space, has a 'Category One' classification from the NZ Historic Places Trust due to its historical significance and architectural quality.

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