Prison chaos: A riotous history of New Zealand jails

Prison reform groups and inmate advocates call it a protest. Authorities are more likely to call it a riot.

Either way, this week’s mayhem at Waikeria Prison was the most prolonged and destructive stand-off at a New Zealand jail for decades.

The Waikeria disorder dwarfed a 2013 Spring Hill riot, when inmates drunk on home brew ran rampant and set fires but were brought under control in barely nine hours.

Over the generations, riots and protests have erupted at New Zealand jails for various reasons.

Despite widespread damage, the stalemate at Waikeria was resolved with negotiation.

In the past, prison uprisings were sometimes only quelled through extreme violence.


For years, a confrontation and massacre at a camp near a quiet South Wairarapa town was one of New Zealand’s darkest secrets.

After the Allied victory in Guadalcanal, Japanese prisoners of war (POWs) were brought from the Solomon Islands to New Zealand.

The camp at Featherston held hundreds of POWs.

In February 1943, some Japanese POWs went on strike. Unruly prisoners threw stones and then reportedly rushed the guards.

The guards opened fire, killing 31 prisoners in about 30 seconds. A further 17 prisoners died later of their injuries, and one guard was killed.

According to NZ Geographic, government agents heavily edited the first report, fearing Japanese retribution against Commonwealth POWs.

A military court of inquiry found the shooting was unavoidable.

Some tribunal details and many other official records were kept hidden, held under embargo for 50 years.

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Mt Eden was the scene of an unsuccessful escape attempt in July 1965.

Daniel MacMillan and Godfrey Jonassen Sadaraka planned the getaway.

“Their plan was simple and involved a handgun, crudely made keys and violence,” crime writer and sociologist Jarrod Gilbert wrote in the Herald.

“The two men released other inmates with an improvised key and an iron bar.”

The central Auckland prison, at the time housing inmates serving time for violent crimes, erupted into fire and mayhem.

The “frenzied riot” gutted the interior but failed to permanently shut down the jail, author Mark Derby wrote in Rock College: An unofficial history of Mount Eden Prison.

Rioting continued for 33 hours, causing extensive damage.

“A cordon of armed police, warders and troops stood guard round the prison in the glare of hastily rigged floodlights,” the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand explained.

Once police and prison authorities took control, some of the disorderly inmates were transferred to Christchurch.

That proved to be far from ideal for the South Island city.


Within a week, new arrivals expelled from Mt Eden instigated a riot at Paparua in Christchurch.

Chaos broke out during a chapel service and six guards were injured.

Soon after, a fire was lit in the jail’s east wing.

“Firemen trying to control the blaze were met with a barrage of cutlery, bottles, bricks and furniture,” according to a British Movietone-AP newsreel at the time.

Tear gas was used to suppress the melee.

By the time the riot was stopped, more than 40 warders and policemen had superficial injuries, the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand said.


North of Wellington, Rimutaka prison staggered from one scandal to another in 2007.

The Herald outlined the cavalcade of catastrophes at the time. In March that year, 11 staff were stood down pending investigations into corruption and smuggling.

The same month, a senior manager was put on special leave over claims of mismanagement.

Convicted rapist Peter Mana McNamara somehow managed to father a son while serving seven years in the prison.

In April, youths affiliated to rival gangs Black Power and Mongrel Mob rioted, reportedly causing thousands of dollars worth of damage.

The following month, inmates took over part of the youth offenders unit, plunging the entire prison into lockdown.

The NZPA reported that an estimated 15 inmates climbed onto the roof and stayed there for more than five hours before being persuaded to come down.

The damage from rioting cost $410,000, according to an NZPA report.

A Parole Board source on Sunday said Rimutaka had since made reforms and was now regarded as one of the country’s best-run prisons and most effective at rehabilitation.


At Northland Regional Prison near Kaikohe, a riot squad was deployed after inmates damaged cells and lit fires.

The entire prison, known as Ngawha, was locked down.

The riot broke out a month after a confrontation between guards and inmates led to one officer being hospitalised with minor injuries after a blow on the head.

But the disorder lasted only about one hour.

The Herald at the time reported Corrections staff from Auckland were sent to the prison, including highly trained advanced control and restraint unit members.

Kaumātua Mac Anania later told RNZ remand inmates were responsible for the riot.

He said remand prisoners were often agitated because they were smokers who suddenly found themselves in prison going cold turkey.


In the winter of 2013, some inmates got drunk on homebrew and lit fires at Spring Hill jail near Hampton Downs, between Hamilton and Auckland.

As word of the fiery uprising filtered through to other jails, Paremoremo maximum-security inmates jammed a gate and tried to start a fire.

But serious disorder was confined to Spring Hill.

And unlike this week’s Waikeria mayhem, the disturbance at Spring Hill was brought under control in less than half a day.

In a review after the riot, Corrections said the Spring Hill disturbance was the biggest, most destructive case of “concerted indiscipline” in any jail in the 21st Century.

And the inquiry found parts of the prison’s management team were divided and dysfunctional.

The Spring Hill riot caused $10 million in damage.

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