Corrections to decide on future of Mt Eden prison


Most people try to stay out of prison, but one of New Zealand's most historic lock-ups could soon open its doors to even the most law-abiding citizen.

It's not quite Alcatraz, but Mt Eden Prison could become a tourist attraction. The Department of Corrections is planning to make the old building accessible to the public.

Criminologist and ex-convict Greg Newbold says when he went behind bars there in 1975, it was like stepping back in history.

"No toilets in the cells. No running water in the cells. It was a bit like an old dungeon."

The first inmates entered in 1888, with the last of them moving out in 2011 when the new Mt Eden prison was built next door.

"It's a monument to the Victorian era and the Victorian philosophy of lock 'em up and leave 'em," Mr Newbold says.

A prison escape attempt in 1965 led to a mass riot, extensive damage and a place in New Zealand history.

But its bones are still strong to this day - there are few buildings in New Zealand quite like it - and one architect thinks its life is a long way from over.

"It's not often you get to work with a building with bones like that," AUT architecture research director Tony Van Raat says.

"It's like walking inside a dinosaur… like the skeleton of a dragon. It's just a fantastic building."

Interested groups have until October 20 to submit their proposals for the prison's future. Corrections says whatever happens, the aim is to protect the heritage, and make sure the building meets the security constraints of the actual prison just over the fence.

Around the world, some former prisons have been turned into accommodation. Boston's Charles Street Jail was once criticised for its inhuman conditions and overcrowding. Now it's a luxury hotel.

And in Christchurch, Addington Prison has become a comfortable and secure place for backpackers, now known as Jailhouse Accommodation.