Waikune Prison Courtyard

“Clean up your own mess”

There’s a desolate set of buildings as you travel along State Highway 4 in the centre of the North Island, New Zealand, which sits rotting and stark against a back drop of luscious native bush and striking mountains. Recently, passing by we stopped, thinking that it was a deserted school.

The atmosphere was grim. And we were intrigued.

Window looking into the Church

This was a place of total destruction, both inside and out. We peered inside the smashed windows of the Church and ventured around to explore further. It’s hard to explain the feeling as I walked into that church. It felt like a place of fear. Bullet holes punctured the glass entrance. The church was empty except for a metal bar that had been hung from the ceiling. The words “There Watchatr” scrawled along the back wall.

As we ventured further into the grounds, a car approached slowly, clearly checking us out. Sitting in the front seat were two men from the local iwi. They looked us up and down, questioning our intentions with their eyes. We explained that we travelled by here and had always wondered the history of these buildings. We assumed it was an old school.

One of the men continued to watch us silently as the other explained, this ain’t no school, it was a prison. The land had been confiscated from their ancestors early in New Zealand’s colonisation history. This had been a low security prison facility that the government had closed down in the late 1980s. They had left it in a state of disrepair and then returned the land to the iwi. The cost of returning the land back to a usable state would have been huge. He gestured to the buildings, then looked back at us and said, “we’ve been telling them to come back here and clean up their own mess for years but they’re not listening.”

We asked if we continue to take a look around. The passenger leaned over the driver and said, “go for it; but don’t fall in any holes… and we never saw you.”

Any usable building resource had been removed. Every fitting had been ripped from the walls. It reeked of the frustration, anger and dislocation that edges beneath the surface of much of the race relations in this country. As I walked through grounds and took in the place, my sense of anxiety grew and began to overtake my sense of curiosity. Despite the fact that there was no one else around, the place was filled with the feeling that no good had come from this land for a long time, and perhaps won’t until the government do come and clean up their own mess.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy another of my photo essays: https://medium.com/@hannahmarymack

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