Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Waikeria Prison Riot


This report details my Inquiry into the riot at the Top Jail of Waikeria Prison, which began on 29 December 2020 and ended six days later on 3 January 2021.

The riot was violent, destructive, and presented a real risk to life. Its magnitude was unprecedented in New Zealand correctional history. It was not a peaceful protest; nor was it a proportionate response to prisoners’ dissatisfaction with prison conditions. Nonetheless, this Inquiry has found significant issues with the Department of Corrections Ara Poutama Aotearoa’s preparedness for, and response to, this disorder event.

Prior to the riot, prison conditions and prisoner behaviour combined to create a risk of disorder, which was not appropriately managed. When disorder broke out in the Top Jail’s yard 116, there was a lack of early decisive intervention. Several opportunities were missed to prevent the situation from escalating to the extent that it did. Once fires became established there was a delay in ordering the evacuation of the prison. During the first few hours after disorder started, the prison’s response was characterised by poor communication and ineffective command and control.

This Inquiry also found issues with training, equipment, building security, staff roles, and health and safety, among others. Corrections had not fully addressed the lessons from previous disorder events, such as the Spring Hill Corrections Facility riot in 2013.

The riot was a time of danger for staff and those prisoners who were not involved. The Top Jail was evacuated without loss of life due to the courageous actions of staff. It was also a time of great concern for whanau and family of staff and prisoners. I want to acknowledge the ongoing impact of this event and the trauma it caused, not only to staff and prisoners in the Top Jail, but to staff from across the prison network who were involved. So too, the significant impact on staff of the relocation of prisoners from the Top Jail to prisons across the North Island.

My determination has been to robustly inquire into, and report on, what happened before, during and after the riot. Further, to make recommendations for improvements where necessary, to ensure Corrections is better prepared for a future event of this nature.

I have heard a great deal from interviews with staff and evacuated prisoners. I also received submissions from the Corrections Association of New Zealand, the Public Service Association and the New Zealand Nurses Organisation.

Following such events there are always lessons that can be learned. My approach to this Inquiry was not to find fault with the decisions or actions of any individual, rather to take a systems, practice and policy wide review of matters within the scope of the Terms of Reference.

I have been supported by a Panel of Independent External Advisors: Sir David Carruthers, Lady Tureiti Moxon, Dr Robert Joseph and Baden Vertongen. This is the first time I have appointed a Panel to assist me in my work and I am greatly appreciative of their support.

I also want to recognise the other agencies which responded to the riot for their assistance with my Inquiry – New Zealand Police, Fire and Emergency New Zealand and St John Ambulance. I acknowledge the engagement with the Independent Police Conduct Authority given its oversight role and separate investigation into aspects of the Police response.

This report is the result of months of exhaustive inquiry and is testament to the dedicated efforts of my team to investigate fairly, impartially and objectively. There is much to learn and to action. It is my intention to report on my findings and recommendations publicly, and I intend to report on Corrections’ progress periodically.

This report has been written in a way to avoid commenting on culpability for criminal conduct. In order not to prejudice the criminal, civil and Waitangi Tribunal proceedings in any way, the report is confined to the factual narrative and avoids commentary on such matters which are appropriately the responsibility of the aforementioned proceedings.

I trust this sentinel event realises positive outcomes for Corrections, its staff and those in custody across the prison network.

Janis Adair
Chief Inspector