On Wednesday 18 January 1911, Waikeria Prison’s first Acting Gaoler George W. Reid opened his journal, picked up his fountain pen and wrote, “Started building with four men employed” . Reid’s team was setting up camp for the prisoners and gaolers developing Waikeria Reformatory Farm, the “most up to date prison in the world” , to be situated on 1,250 acres of scrubland between the banks of the Waikeria and Mangatutu Streams outside Te Awamutu.
One hundred years on, Waikeria Prison is one of New Zealand’s largest prisons, accommodating 1,000 prisoners and employing 480 staff. The prison commemorated its centenary on 17 November 2011, with 150 guests enjoying a tour of the prison, historical bus trip and the unveiling of a Centennial Plaque. Among the guests were staff, past and present, local kaumatua, representatives from the emergency services and members of the Waikeria community. The 100th anniversary was an occasion for people to come together, share their stories and pay tribute to those who have passed away over the years, both staff and prisoners.
Waikeria Prison began life as a working farm with 30-40 prisoners and an emphasis on vocational training. New Zealand needed farmers and Waikeria would provide them, reformed and ready to plough the land. Sir John Findlay, the chief proponent of the prison, summed up the reformative zeal that led to its development; “A very large proportion of fallen humanity could, under conditions such as would be provided at the reformatory farm, by industry be reformed.” Sir John set two main objectives for the prison – “The protection of Society and the reformation of the criminal” – aims that resonate today in Corrections’ priorities of public safety and reducing re-offending.
The majority of the early inmates were young, “reformable” men serving short sentences for minor crimes. Historically, Waikeria has focussed on the rehabilitation of young offenders. In 1925 Waikeria opened a borstal institution. In 1961 New Zealand’s first youth detention centre was set up. The sentence provided a short period of discipline and hard work, coupled with education. Both detention centres and borstal training were abolished in 1981, at which time Waikeria became a youth institution. In 1985 Waikeria Prison was reinstated as a men’s prison.
Gavin Dalziel, Corrections’ Acting Assistant Regional Manager, began work as a Prison Officer in 1976 at Waikeria Borstal. Borstals and detention centres were run along strict military principles. “The inmates were given short haircuts and marched everywhere. It was all about the short, sharp shock.” Gavin notes that he still meets some of the borstal boys from 30 years ago in prison today, which may be an indication of the lack of success of that particular style. He’s even been around long enough to see some of their grandchildren enter the prison system. “A few years back I was in the Receiving Office. This young guy came up to me and asked, ‘Are you Mr Dalziel? Grandad says hi’.” He believes that thankfully the approach we take these days has a far better chance of stopping the cycle of offending than other attempts over the last 100 years.
Back in the seventies there was no tactical communications programme or control and restraint training for staff, but it didn’t take Gavin and his colleagues long to realise that a prison officer’s role wasn’t about force. “It’s about being firm but fair, showing respect and treating people the way you want to be treated.”
Waikeria Prison Manager Kevin Smith welcomed the opportunity to gather ex-staff and the local community together to mark the centenary. “It’s not about celebrating the prison, no-one wants to celebrate a hundred years of locking people up. It’s about celebrating the amazing people who have contributed so much to this place and the local community over the years.”
Among those attending the celebrations was 84 year-old Alison Silvester (nee Ray). Mrs Silvester’s father, Philip Ray, was a Warden at Waikeria from 1923 and his brother, Arthur Ray, was the Farm Manager. The family lived in Waikeria Village from 1927 until they moved into Te Awamutu in 1944.
Mrs Silvester vividly recalls her childhood in Waikeria, in particular one evening in 1934 when aviator Sir Charles Kingsford Smith landed his plane, The Southern Cross, at Waikeria. “Dad took us to the paddock he had prepared as an aerodrome and the wardens let us get up close and see inside the plane.”
An interesting episode in New Zealand’s celluloid history has links to Waikeria. Mrs Silvester remembers Rudall Hayward’s film “Rewi’s Last Stand” being remade with sound in 1940. “Maori prisoners were used as extras. In the evenings we would listen to them practising their hakas and war chants in the recreation yard.”
While many things have changed in the last hundred years, today Waikeria Prison retains its strong focus on the rehabilitative powers of work and employment.