Waikeria Prison: Rawiri Waititi says any casualties would be 'on Government', Māori Council calls for politicians to stop 'grandstanding'

If the Waikeria Prison siege "turns to custard" and results in casualties, it would be "entirely on the Government", Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi says while the Māori Council calls for politicians to stop "grandstanding". 

Sixteen inmates at the Waikato facility are entering their fifth night of a standoff with Corrections after setting fires and taking over the 'top jail' on Tuesday in protest of what they claim are inhumane conditions and a lack of access to basic necessities.

On Thursday, Waititi, the MP for Waiariki, rushed to the prison to meet with the inmates, saying at the time that he would be there to "listen, to support their call for justice and work towards a solution". 

No immediate resolution came from that meeting, with Waititi instead calling for Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis to intervene to resolve the situation. Since then, prisoners have continued to set alight other parts of the building.

Waititi said on Saturday he has been contacted by whānau of the inmates who claim they are "willing to surrender" but only if he is present "because they believe their safety will be compromised". 

"They don't trust the authorities and believe they will be harmed upon surrender. They have stated they will come out in body bags if I am not there to escort them out and ensure their safety. Remember this is a protest not a riot," he said. 

The MP said he is willing to return to the prison and made attempts on Saturday to gain access - including through Davis - but was refused entry. 

"The law allows the right for any MP to visit prisons and to communicate with prisoners in regard to their treatment in prison or a complaint about treatment."

National MPs Simeon Brown and Barbara Kuriger also tried to visit the prison on Saturday to support Corrections officers but were turned away as they were told it's an "emergency situation", meaning they needed the minister's approval. 

Waititi said the purpose of his first visit wasn't to negotiate surrender, but to listen. 

"The purpose of this visit will be to ensure the safety of the 16 when they surrender. The conditions they protested against have been supported by an independent Ombudsman's report in August of this 2020," the MP said.

"We have the opportunity to solve this issue and keep everyone safe but the authorities are letting their egos and bureaucracy take over instead. If this situation turns to custard and if there are any casualties - that is entirely on the Government."

Corrections, which says it is committed to resolving the incident safely, said on Friday that the prisoners agreed with negotiators earlier this week that they would surrender if they could speak to kaumatua. 

"This was facilitated however did not resolve the situation. Later in the day the prisoners committed to surrendering if they could speak with MP Rawiri Waititi," incident controller Jeanette Burns said. 

"This was also facilitated and did not resolve the situation. We have negotiated in good faith, and prisoners have defaulted on the commitments that they have made."

Burns said prisoners had "forcibly" entered restricted parts of the prison with tactical equipment, constructed "makeshift weapons that we believe they are planning to use against staff", and accessed a medical dispensary where controlled drugs are stored. 

"While the group state that they are protesting conditions at the prison and not rioting, their actions are clearly violent."

Corrections also has concerns about tensions between the prisoners, especially after one who surrendered on Thursday was assaulted by other inmates trying to stop him from leaving. 

"We have been approached by others who believe that they can resolve the incident, which we have declined. This remains a highly volatile and dangerous situation, complicated by the damage to the facility and the access to weapons that the prisoners have," Burns said.

"We are not prepared to compromise the safety of staff responding to the incident, and highly trained staff with specialist skills will continue to negotiate with the prisoners. 

"The prisoners are aware that water will be provided to them on their surrender, along with further access to kaumatua. They have had multiple regular opportunities to comply with staff."

A call for calm

The New Zealand Māori Council released a statement on Saturday calling for calm. 

Executive director Matthew Tukaki said the matters are "complex" and it was everyone's interests to bring the situation to an end in a timely manner. He wouldn't rule out the council playing a role in bringing the disorder to a conclusion. 

"The health and safety risks to the workers and prisoners need to be dealt with as do the broader concerns of all involved," he said.

"The reality is that the prison has probably reached its use-by date and it is timely to have a discussion about its future - but that can only happen on the backdrop of a swift resolution to the current standoff".

Tukaki also asked for politicians to step back to allow mana whenua to work with authorities and the prisoners. 

"What we do not need are politicians turning up to the gates and grandstanding to elicit a response that in itself would be political in nature. It neither helps nor resolves what is happening."

While the ordeal has been ongoing now for more than five days, the Corrections Minister has yet to comment. A spokesperson says he is waiting for the situation to be resolved, but is across developments.

Judith Collins, the Leader of the Opposition, blasted Davis on Saturday, saying he "needs to front up and explain how this loss of control happened and what he's going to do to fix it". 

"He was perfectly happy to crow about prisons in Opposition but now that he's in charge, he's nowhere to be seen," she said.

The National Party leader said that "mass destruction of taxpayer-funded property, assaulting Corrections staff and hoarding weapons is not a 'peaceful protest'".