Cultures Sauvages (Raw Cultures) is a radio show on Radio Eponyme, a local radio of Mulhouse. The show was created in 2017 and talks about culture and especially music and literature. Since October 2019, I’m doing a chronicle every month about my travels and I decided to draw something to illustrate my adventures!
The November 6th 2019 show was about Halloween and you can listen to it -in French- right here:
VOLUNTEERING IN THE OLDEST PRISON OF NEW-ZEALAND
As Halloween was around the corner, I found out a story which is combining both the orange colour and ghosts, as well as psychopaths, murderers, hanged men and handcuffs.
Can you guess what I’m going to talk to you about? No? Well, I’m going to tell you about the time when I lived in a prison.
Not that I’ve been some kind of criminal in a past life, but I actually found myself volunteering in the oldest prison of New-Zealand, in Napier, a nice seaside little city surrounded by vineyards. Napier is located on the East Coast of the North Island of New-Zealand and was partially destroyed during the 1931’s earthquake. Most of the buildings were rebuilt in the Art Deco- style, which was very trendy at that time, and made Napier one of the most touristic cities in the country, now UNESCO World Heritage Site. As for the prison, it wasn’t too damaged, even though there are still some cracks on the walls.
Napier Prison opened its doors in 1862 and closed them for good in 1993. Bought in 2002, it had been the setting for a reality tv show called “Redemption Hill” where a bunch of young delinquents were supposed to have a glimpse of what their life would look like in jail if they kept on behaving like pricks. It used to be a backpacker hostel as well where the travellers could sleep in the prison’s cells (refurbished, of course). It seemed that the prison was also the headquarters of the Alcoholic Anonymous, a psychiatric unit, an orphanage and even a lighthouse, as Napier is a seaside city and the prison lies on top of a hill.
Nowadays, the prison has become a historic museum which also offers “scary tours” where your guide dressed as a warden will show you around and tell you some creepy and spooky stories about the murderers who were imprisoned there and the ghosts haunting the place. During those night tours, some terribly well-disguised actors are hidden in the corners and under beds to make the audience jump and scream.
For the prison has what it takes to send shivers on the spine: many dangerous criminals, gang leaders, Maori rebels and death row inmates.
But let me take you around Napier prison first. Before getting him, you’re facing a gigantic dark wooden double door, integrated into a stone wall with barb wires. You need to ring the bell to enter, and the staff opens a 20cm wide peephole in the wooden door to inquire about your intentions. You’re clean? Are the doors opening?
Welcome to Napier prison!
Just beside the entrance gate there’s a little white house, which is definitely not a beach house, but a building called “The Pound”, the isolation cell were prisoners were sent to when they didn’t comply to the internal rules (which forbid laughing and talking loud, can you imagine the fun?) They could stay there up to two weeks, sleeping on the cold floor, naked. Toilets and a shower were added in the last years before the closing, but before that, there was no option but sleeping in your cold pee.
Further on your right, right after “The Pound” lies the reception desk. That’s where I used to work and welcome you smiling with my French accent. I was giving you an audio guide, taking your digital prints and a picture of you in an orange suit in the case you wanted a memory of your visit. Once your audio guide and the map in hands, you can enter the main yard after the outdoor showers and bathrooms, but beware! Someone told me they were all haunted by former inmates!
You’re now facing the U-shaped main building, around the main yard, where the cells are. It’s possible to have a look at most of the cells, some are staged, some left more or less in the same state they were back in 2002. There, you can learn facts about some prisoners, like Te Kooti, a Maori chief accused of being a rebel sympathiser by the European colons. He stayed a few days on the prison in 1866 before being sent to exile in the Chatham Islands without trial. He then managed to escape and started a fierce battle against the government. When the fights ended, he was given a pardon as a peace offering.
Now, we’re entering the South Wing, the former death row. There were only 4 executions by hanging in Napier, the death penalty had been abolished in 1961. As a matter of fact, there’s a tiny cemetery in the prison where the inmates were buried vertically to prevent their souls to rest in peace. The gallows were the prisoners were hanged was rebuilt in the little yard adjacent to the South Wing. Back then, the hangings were public, and the citizens could sit down on the prison wall to watch the show. Nowadays, we’d rather climb up there for the sunset – a definitely more enjoyable sight.
In 2015, as I wanted to explore the Hawkes Bay region, I found a volunteering position in this prison which, in exchange of 4 hours working per day, offered me a bed… in a cell! I then moved in the cell 17 of the South Wing, the former death row. There was a tiny window on top of the wall, obviously with bars and a heavy metal door with a safety latch closed with a locker.
It was the smallest cell in the building, but I didn’t mind as I heard the prison was haunted… then I would be sure that nothing supernatural could crawl in a dark corner when I was sleeping. A few years before, the Ghost Hunters team, from a rather famous tv show with real ghostbusters, came to the prison with their detectors of supernatural activities to see if there were still some inmates haunting the place. They discovered that the serial killer Roland Edward is still walking around the prison, especially around July 15th, the day he was executed.
During my 3 weeks stay at the prison, I haven’t seen nor heard anything special, even when I had to go to the outdoor bathrooms in the middle of the night, those famously known as haunted. Okay, I felt some shivers in my neck, but it could have just been the wind, right? The only one who made me jump was Basil, the prison ginger cat, which is strolling around the hallways making the doors creak, especially when he goes to the kitchen at the end of the death row.
While living in Napier prison, I had the chance to attend one of the most unlikely party ever. The whole prison was privatised for an electrician convention, and they all came dressed up with black and white stripes, like prisoners from the early XXth century. The staff and the volunteers were also a part of it, as we were dressed up as wardens! With our white shirts and black jackets, we were given handcuffs and charged to terrorize the electricians.
For the occasion, some “scary tours” were also organized with the usual team of actors. I had so much fun joining them and hid myself to scare this striped audience! In the main yard, under a giant tent, a classical music band was playing the violin in XIXth century dresses. There was also a caterer with a lot of food and alcohol. The vibe was electric, good-humoured and friendly, a rather unusual atmosphere for a prison. The party lasted quite late that night.
And that’s how things go in Napier Prison nowadays. Learning about the history of the city and the criminality in New-Zealand while having fun. Well, especially while having fun. For the bravest, it’s good to know that the prison is now organizing Escape Games at night, those role play where you have to get out of a place by solving riddles and puzzles.
I lived a bit more than 3 weeks in this prison, having my breakfast in the main yard, going grocery shopping with my orange inmate outfit as a way to advertise, watching the crazy New-Zealand sunsets from the prison walls. I befriended some extraordinary crazy people, whom I’m still in touch with today.
People might think or say whatever they want about this unusual experience that could seem creepy, but I lived there some of my best moments in New-Zealand… Well, that’s probably because I’ve always had a thing for unusual places and scary experiences.