Corrections can't guarantee another riot like Waikeria won't happen again

Corrections says while it accepts almost all recommendations made today in a scathing report from its watchdog, it can't guarantee another riot like Waikeria won't happen again.

The fiery six-day rampage by 17 prisoners in 2020 destroyed the high-security prison near Te Awamutu, with some prisoners fearing they'd burn alive awaiting evacuation.

The report found "significant issues" with Corrections' planning, preparedness and response, a "lack of decisive early intervention", as well as "poor communication and ineffective command and control".

the inquiry also found "issues with training, equipment, building security, staff roles and health and safety".

It was chaos and lawlessness behind the wire on a scale New Zealand has never seen before.

"The speed of the fire and the total destruction of the Top Jail... many of the prisoners certainly described feeling helpless and hopeless and thought they were going to die that day," said the Office of the Inspectorate's chief inspector Janis Adair.

In a damning report out on Friday, Corrections' own watchdog has found a minor argument over the non-return of a razor in an exercise yard sparked a living hell.

CCTV cameras were covered in toilet paper, prisoners soaped themselves to resist removal from the yard and even after guards regained control the report said several opportunities were missed to prevent the situation from escalating again.

"The department's preparedness for such an event and response to, absolutely needed greater attention, greater resource, training, tactical skill and capability and inter-agency working. So there was much to learn," Adair said.

By 9pm that night 17 prisoners from seven gangs were rampaging on the roof as toxic smoke overwhelmed staff and the remaining 200 prisoners in their cells - the last of which were not evacuated until 1am.

"My greatest concern about this was the timing of the evacuation," Adair said.

"I acknowledge it was really traumatic but it was a deliberate act by 17 people that we could not have predicted on that scale," Corrections national commissioner Leigh Marsh said.

The report found:

  • underlying tensions caused the riot, with prisoners going without clean bedding, toilet paper and towels
  • there was a disconnect between those on the ground and those making decisions
  • and only on day four did a change of leadership bring "a clear and immediate drive to bring the incident to an end"

Marsh said Corrections is "absolutely" better prepared now.

The report outlines how prisoners gained access to the armoury, to shields, helmets and bolt cutters. Some donned Corrections uniforms to confuse.

"There needs to be some targeted training, specifically on how to deal with these individuals, how to deal with maximum security prisoners. That is something that is completely lacking," said Corrections Association of New Zealand (CANZ) national president Floyd du Plessis.

"The department has this view all prisoners are equal - unfortunately they are not."

The Chief Inspector makes 121 recommendations; Corrections must report back six-monthly.

"What I can't say is an event like this won't happen again because there is always that risk there but our ability to manage this at the lowest level and respond quicker is far greater than it was," Marsh said.

And the Minister is watching.

"I'm satisfied they've responded very well to the recommendations inside the Inspector's report," Mark Mitchell said.

A report which for prison bosses and their staff, could have do-or-die consequences.