Waikeria prison protest: Aerial photos show extent of damage following fire

Exclusive aerial photos show the absolute devastation at Waikeria Prison after inmates lit fires and rioted in protest of conditions “unfit for humans” at the maximum security facility.

Rioting began after fires were lit in the exercise yard on Tuesday afternoon. The inmates took over the jail in less than 24 hours.

The 16 inmates responsible surrendered peacefully at 12.37pm yesterday, but now the facility was unusable and would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair, Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis said.

Photos taken this morning of the facility, just south of Te Awamutu in Waikato, show much of the complex gutted by fire.

Advocates said inmates were protesting against unhygienic and dehumanising conditions – claims denied by Corrections.

The prison went into lockdown soon after rioting began last week, with 200 prisoners soon evacuated from the top jail and taken to other prisons.

The near week-long riot only ended after Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi met the inmates.

“They were ready to come down,” Waititi said. “Naturally, they were tired and hungry but still very determined to see change.”

Most of the 16 were members of the Mongols and Comancheros gangs, with five of the men deported from Australia.

Department of Corrections chief executive Jeremy Lightfoot says they were not aware of any complaints made by the men in relation to their living conditions.

Davis did not believe the inmates were rioting over living conditions, he told the media yesterday afternoon.

Davis said he chose not to speak out during the siege because he did not want to encourage similar behaviour from other prisoners, saying the inmates wanted political attention from the rioting.

However this stance has been criticised by all sides, with National saying Davis should have stepped in sooner and partially blamed him for the crisis having “scrapped” their plans to upgrade the aging prison.

Whānau member of inmates have also slammed comments from authorities no complaints had been made, saying they had been dismissed.

In a statement issued through advocacy group People Against Prisons Aotearoa, whānau said they tried “many times to make complaints” but were “dismissed every time”.

“Our loved ones inside also tried many times to make complaints, but were denied access to PC01 complaint forms.

“The Ombudsman’s investigations also found that for years, Waikeria has denied prisoners these forms.

“As Corrections itself has admitted, the top jail at Waikeria was unfit for humans to live in.

“Despite knowing for years that the jail was unhygienic and conditions inside were disgusting, Corrections still forced our loved ones to endure this treatment.”

ActionStation, People Against Prisons Aotearoa, and JustSpeak called on police not to press additional charges against the inmates.

They said the men were protesting against breaches of human rights and Corrections had to address the issues to ensure their safety and wellbeing.

An Ombudsman’s report released in August 2020 found conditions at Waikeria in some cases failed to meet minimum UN standards.

The Ombudsman found meal times across the prison did not reflect usual meal times, and many inmates voiced concern about water quality.

Some cells were run down, with chunks of vinyl missing from floors, some windows did not have curtains and toilets did not have lids.

The Human Rights Commission has called for an inquiry to be launched into the incident.

Chief Commissioner Paul Hunt said it was a mistake to see it as an isolated one-off.

“Whatever triggered this protest, poor prison conditions are a vital part of the context.

“Last August, the Ombudsman published a report on Waikeria and concluded that the high-security complex is no longer fit for purpose.’

In 2018, People Against Prisons told RNZ they predicted riots at Waikeria Prison due to conditions there.

Aindependent report in 2017 identified 42 issues including damp, dark cells where prisoners could be locked away for up to 26 hours at a time.

Prisoners told inspectors there were frequent violent assaults, mainly as a result of gang tensions but also because of boredom.

Two reviews have been commissioned into the rioting.

The first is an operational review by the chief custodial officer, which should be completed within three months.

The second, by the office of the chief inspector, should be completed within six to nine months.

The last major New Zealand prison riot was at Spring Hill in 2013 but it was resolved within nine hours, paling in comparison to the Waikeria unrest.

The Waikeria unrest is the longest and potentially most destructive at any New Zealand jail for decades.

It’s not immediately clear how much the chaos will cost taxpayers, but the Spring Hill riot in 2013 caused $10 million in damage.

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