Napier Prison most definitely wasn’t a tourist attraction back in 1973. Back then it was, well, the local prison, full of local criminals. But with the Hawke’s Bay Regional Prison opening in 1989, Napier Prison eventually closed soon after, before reopening in 2002 as a backpackers hostel.
The hostel facilities have now closed (well, it wouldn’t have been particularly pleasant staying there in winter), but both guided and audio tours are available in the old prison.
As it happens, I’ve been to a few old prisons around the world – the majestic ruins of Port Arthur in Tasmania, Old Melbourne Gaol’s anti-self-pleasure gloves and Ned Kelly death mask, and the tragic history of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. What penal delights would Napier Prison have for me?
From the outside, Napier Prison looks like a mighty prison indeed. A giant stone wall surrounds it, and from a distance it looked like it might be bluestone, but as I got closer I realised it was just dirty old stones. Nonetheless, it is an impressive stonework, and deserving of its heritage listing.
But inside the prison, the stonework ends. The prison buildings themselves are wood and concrete, looking more like a rundown school camp than a prison for ruthless criminal gangsta villains. I was almost expecting to be offered a watery mug of Milo.
As I wandered around the prison, going from location to location on the audio tour, I was followed around by Basil, the prison’s resident cat. Actually, he didn’t so much follow me as show me the way. I assume he’s so used to the path of the tour that he knows exactly where the humans will go. Aptly enough, there was a bowl of cat food waiting for Basil in the mess hall.
Basil led me into one of the old cell blocks. One cell had a collection of bed bases that had been doodled upon by various inmates, reinforcing the brand identity of their affiliated gangs. Since the prison closed, some of the former inmates have tried to retrieve their handiwork. I suppose some would like to show their grandchildren the really awesome likeness of the Zig-Zag man they did that time.
I noticed Basil duck off into another cell and so I followed him in there. There he was sitting next to a dead body – oh, wait – a mannequin made up to look like a dead body. It actually gave me a fright, but Basil was so nonchalant about the faux corpse, merrily licking his cat bits, that I couldn’t stay frightened for long.
There were plenty of spooky corridors, especially when the buildings are eerily quiet, not brightly lit and empty of other tourists in the early morning. But around a corner I found a most intriguing place.
In 2006, TVNZ screened a series called “Redemption Hill”, a cross between “Scared Straight” and “Maggie’s Garden Show”. A typical ’00s reality series, it took 10 troubled teens and sent them to old Napier prison where they were yelled at and given a group task of revamping a little corner garden.
So the “Redemption Hill” garden is still there. It’s cleverly designed to have lots of different visual features but with little needing mowing or weeding. A central pathway area is laid with paving stones, each hand decorated, no doubt by the troubled teens.
Five years on, the garden feels very much a product of the ’00s and slowly on its way to looking a bit naff (the way that things a few years out of fashion do). The little shrubs edging the pathway are starting to grow out a bit, but I guess the troubled teens aren’t around any more to maintain it. Wikipedia notes that two of the teens have since died in separate car crashes.
And from the Redemption Hill garden it was on to the small burial area and the hanging yard. And I was standing there listening to the tour commentary trying to strike a balance between ye-olde-comedy clanky-chains drama-voice prison tour and the reality that people were killed here and people are buried here.
It was an awkward tone to end on and I didn’t feel like standing around in the hanging yard, listening to the audio tour any longer. So I bid farewell to Basil the cat and made my way out.
Napier Prison feels quite low-key compared to the other old prison tours I’ve visited. Perhaps it’s because the prison was never very large or elaborate, and that it’s been out of use for less than 20 years. I’m sure there have been some fearsome inmates, but it’s hard to find it all that scary when there’s a peeling, crudely drawn mural depicting a topless wahine (Pania, perhaps) lazing about in the ocean.
I left the prison and realised I’d gone back to doing something Maurice had done – I admired “fine views of Hawke’s Bay from Bluff Hill”.
That’s what I like about using the Shell Guide to New Zealand – whether I follow it precisely or just let it generally guide me in particular direction, it always ends up an interesting experience. It’s an insight to the way things used to be and the way things are now. And a reminder that sometimes it’s just nice to have a little sit-down in a rose garden.