It was the pigs of George Orwell’s Animal Farm who proclaimed that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. Pigs are similarly the object of resentment in under-the-mattress graffiti in Cell #26 of this former prison.
The poem began burnt into the wood:
Pigs CAN’T FLY
and continued in blue pen:
BUT THEY CAN DIE
NEXT FINE DAY
BLOW A Pig away
IF YOU KILL A Pig a day
it WILL Keep the doctor away
Nowhere more clearly did we find articulated the smoldering frustration of incarceration, channeled into the kind of blind hatred that negates any opportunity for insight.
Elsewhere was a mixture of light and shade. In the kitchen the relative gentleness of a rainbow framing the extractor fan was juxtaposed with murals depicting fearsome hyper-masculine muscularity. No such diverting decor was provided for prisoners in solitary confinement, who were required to surrender their tobacco products and were issued with fresh water, a chamber pot, one mattress, one pillow, one pillow slip, one sheet, and blankets or duvet “in accordance with climactic conditions”. How some of them obtained implements sharp enough to partially chisel their gang names and insignia into the stone walls and into the paint of their cell bars and doors is anyone’s guess.
Puzzling at what we had experienced, and all the more aware of our own freedom of movement and expression, we walked for ninety minutes back down the road through pine forests to where we’d parked our car.
It was a Monday night: the 18th of March, 1946. Forgoing the novelty of home television, including Caspar The Friendly Ghost, the audience travelled in to the heart of the town, found their seats, and fell into a rapt hush as the house lights came down. Joe Houlihan led with a roll on the timpani, Vince Burke chimed in on the newly-tuned grand piano, and Frank Parsons and Kelly Kydd entered into a sensual dance between the violin and the trumpet, respectively.
It was “The Amazing . . . “ according to graffiti pencilled onto the bricks that form a passageway leading from constriction to unknown vastness above. The remainder of the show’s title, of that night, and of the following 73 years, has surrendered itself to time.
In 2019, forgoing modern cinematic entertainment rumbling through the walls, three individuals began in the rabbit warren of basement rooms where presumably the stars of yesteryear prepared themselves. Slowly and quietly they explore their way up to the stage, where a painted hypermodern cityscape complete with nuclear reactor looms large on the back wall. Projection detritus litters the stage floor. An arch – both humble and imposing – through which the audience once entered pays tribute to the Italian Renaissance and serves as a reminder that all the world’s a stage. A wooden ladder of unknown provenance looks just sturdy enough, propped up against a side wall. The rest is history.
Prisons have existed on this site for nearly a century. For the duration of the Second World War, conscientious objectors were detained here. In the 1950’s the site housed a prison farm which was further developed in the late 1970’s. The large size of the site – thousands of hectares of commercial and native forests, farms, wetlands and a river – meant that a perimeter fence was impractical, and the site was only ever suitable to house up to 600 inmates at a minimum to medium security level.
From 1998 the prison began to suffer repetitional damage, first involving a seizure of almost $1 million worth of cannabis plants growing on site, followed by the revelation that buckets were being used in place of toilets, two inmate drownings involving Maori cultural training, canoes and parachutes, and the conviction of a prison guard for supplying cannabis to a prisoner in return for a bribe.
The closure of this unit – one of four we visited as the autumn sun was falling fast – was announced in 2012, and the land and its buildings have now been returned to their original owners. No signs of the commencement of demolition were evident, and – gratifyingly – no signs yet of vandalism. A 360 degree panoramic mural painted around the walls of the dining hall conveys a sense of geographical placement among the majestic landscapes beyond the perimeter of confinement, tantalisingly out of reach.