Bonny Waaka and her mother Marion, in front of a mural painted by prisoners just before the prison closed in 1993.
“I myself don’t believe in ghosts, but I definitely believe in the energy. A place like this and all of the things that happened here…the walls have got to soak up some of that…” – Bonny Waaka
Having housed some of New Zealand’s most notorious criminals for over a century, it only stands to reason that Ms Waaka feels this way about Napier Prison.
Built in 1854 and finally gazetted as a jail 1862, Napier Prison was the oldest penal complex in the country, until it was decommissioned in 1993.
Sitting high on Bluff Hill, a walk through the prison is unnerving even for those with the strongest of wills.
Outside Napier Prison Gates. The prison doors are made from Kauri and the bluestone was quarried by prisoners from nearby Centennial Gardens. They then carried it up Bluff Hill and helped to build the walls that would then go on to hold them inside.
Dark hallways give way to narrow dim cells, many still showcasing graffiti, laments and gang insignias left by former inhabitants desperate to while away the hours.
Well-known inmates included Kereopa Te Rau, Te Kooti and Mr Asia drug syndicate boss Terry Clark.
In addition to being a prison, the location was also used as an orphanage, a psychiatric unit and borstal.
An inmate's letter to a local radio station requesting they play some Bob Marley. Marking off incarceration time.
At least four hangings were conducted in the prison grounds during the 19th century, several of which were carried out by Tom Long, himself a repeat convict.
The hangings were notified in the newspaper and locals used to come and stand on the walls above the courtyard to witness the event.
“People who paid a bit more, were able to watch from the courtyard floor,” says Bonny with a slight shake of her head.
“Families would even come with their children to shout at the condemned.”
When the doors finally closed, the prison was left to deteriorate.
Prisoners would be held in solitary confinement, the Pound, for breaking any of 82 rules, including no laughing.
Gang members would often spend nights in the dilapidated surroundings and weeds grew over household rubbish that was tipped in from surrounding properties.
However, in 2002 Bonny’s mother Marion and her partner took over the lease of the prison.
“When we came it was full of rats, possums and weeds growing up the drains…it was like day of the triffids,” she says.
The Waakas were not deterred, however.
After a tidy up they opened the prison doors once more and started running audio tours for those curious to get a first-hand view of what had been some of the city’s grimmer accommodation.
And while Marion says there is a definite atmosphere inside the prison walls, she’s pleased to have been part of its conservation.
“I don’t feel intimidated by any spirits…I feel like we’re doing a good thing by preserving it, otherwise it could have been bowled or overrun with vandalism…touch wood we’ve had no graffiti on the historic wall outside as the gangs have been very protective as this is their old house.”
Join Spectrum’s Lisa Thompson as she takes a tour of the prison and learns about some of the darker aspects of New Zealand’s history.
Another view of the mural. The prison closed before its completion. Roses and razor wire.