“Petrified” prisoners were locked in their cells as Waikeria began to burn around them and were kept in the dark for hours about what was going on, an inmate claims.
A group of 16 protesting prisoners finally surrendered today after evading capture on the top jail’s roof for nearly a week.
Five of the men were deportees from Australia, with three subject to returning offender orders because of their criminal convictions.
The trouble started on Tuesday afternoon when prisoners lit several fires in the exercise yard and began rioting.
Advocates have repeated throughout the saga that the men were protesting against poor, unhygienic and dehumanising conditions.
One prisoner who was in a unit near the top jail during the riot – but has since been freed under his scheduled release – criticised the lack of communication from Corrections as the drama began on Tuesday.
“It was a pretty harrowing situation for the prisoners that were left in there when it was on fire,” the former prisoner said.
They were looking out the windows and seeing parts of the prison roof “dripping away”, he said.
“They could literally see the whole prison burning around them.
“They must have been petrified.”
About 2pm the prison went into a full lockdown, he said, with everyone confined to their cells.
Shortly after that all the TVs were cut, he said.
About 3pm tell-tale “pillars of black smoke” stretched into the sky but staff did not tell inmates what was happening, he said.
About midnight prison vans were evacuating prisoners from the east and west wing, he said.
Evacuated prisoners were temporarily moved into communal visiting areas in his unit.
He said they told him there had been no communication about whether they would be let out in the lead-up to their evacuation.
A Corrections spokeswoman told the Herald: “It’s fair to say that the prisoners who were in the top jail when the fires started would have been petrified. We are providing support to those who need it.”
Corrections have previously said they are supporting about 200 prisoners who were evacuated from the top jail and taken to other prison sites. They were considering how else to help them maintain contact with their whanau and friends.
The former prisoner told the Herald the old custodial facility should have been closed down years ago.
“This was bound to happen sooner or later,” he said.
“There had been talk in the prison that it was going to happen in the days leading up to it.”
He had mixed feelings about the uprising.
“They have endangered a lot of people’s lives by doing what they did. You can’t really condone or support behaviour that puts so many people in jeopardy.”
But the men had achieved something no politician had done in all the years they had visited and commented on horrible conditions, he said.
The majority of those rioting were in a part of the prison that housed high-risk prisoners, he said.
“They won’t even give them glad wrap or anything like that … they won’t give them knives or forks to eat with them. They give them a little ‘spork’, they call it.”
They ate their food from brown paper bags in their rooms with the toilet about a metre away – it was dehumanising, he said.
“They lock you in a cage no different from a zoo. And then they wonder why we feel the way we do. We are meant to be sent there for rehabilitation. Clearly all they do is fill them full of hate.”
In a dramatic turn, Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi announced the surrender in a statement about 1pm.
Waititi, the MP for Waiariki, said people must serve the time for their crimes but they deserve to be treated in a humane way.
“Even prison guards acknowledged to us that the state of the unit was unacceptable,” he said.
When injustice was normalised, defiance and protest is necessary, he said.
“These men are not animals, they are humans; they are brothers, fathers and sons and are deserving of better treatment.
“If you treat a person like a dog, they will act like one and that is the saddest part of this whole saga; a failed criminal justice system adopted from a land 19,000km away.”
Then Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis finally broke his silence, issuing a statement that confirmed most of the prisoners involved were members of the Mongols and Comancheros gangs.
Five of the men are deportees from Australia, with three subject to returning offender orders because of their criminal convictions.
“The arson, violence and destruction carried out by these men were reckless criminal acts that put themselves, other prisoners, Corrections staff and emergency services in danger,” Davis said.
“I want to thank all those involved for bringing this incident to a close, especially the Corrections staff who responded to the initial incident and worked to secure the site and prevent the other prisoners getting injured.
“I especially want to thank tangata whenua and local kaumātua who played an important role in negotiations with the group and who helped to end this situation peacefully.
There were many legitimate avenues for prisoners to raise concerns about their conditions, including through the independent Corrections Inspectorate and the Office of the Ombudsman, Davis said.
These prisoners used none of those avenues and never raised any issues prior to this event, he said.
Corrections would be undertaking a comprehensive review of how the situation was able to escalate and would also assess the damage left behind.
However, no one is expected to return to the “top jail” facility.
Davis also claimed political attention given to them had “emboldened them” and increased risk to safety.
“I made the decision not to bow to the demands of these men nor make public comment that would have simply opened up political negotiation with them and achieved nothing to bring the event to a safe resolution.”
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