The art, and artists of Christchurch Men's Prison.
Each morning, Lex* gets up at 6am to go for a run with the other boys in the youth unit at Christchurch Men’s Prison.
It’s optional, but he likes to keep fit. On the outside, the 19-year-old liked to run, but life wasn’t so structured, he says. After 30 or 40 minutes around the prison grounds, he is locked back in his cell, where he showers and has breakfast.
“I think I’m a better person now. I’ve learned a lot in here,” he says.
Lex was sent to prison just over a year ago, for drug-related offences. He is looking forward to going home. He misses his family. On the outside he hopes to get work as a mechanic.
But for now, the 19-year-old spends each night, and part of the day, locked in a small cell with a single bed, a shower, a toilet and a TV. He sometimes has classes. Other times he has tasks to do.
And he paints.
Christchurch Men’s Prison is a sprawling complex set amongst grazing cattle to the city’s west. Black-backed gulls circle the skies and spur winged plovers screech from grassy paddocks.
The men on the inside are separated from the outside by razor wire, electric fences, locked gates and doors, x ray machines, sniffer dogs and Corrections officers in blue stab-proof vests.
Everything is grey. The metal wire fences, the building walls, the gravel paths, even the sky. That’s why, in January last year, they began to paint the walls. It started in the youth unit - one of only two in the country where up to 40 men aged between 17 and 20 spend their days and nights behind bars.
Andy Barnes is a senior corrections officer working at the unit. He’s been a prison guard for 18 years, but his Mancunian accent is far from lost. He is tall, with a grey mass of curly hair, and a large belly. His colleagues tell me he’s into steampunk and, of course, The Smiths.
“Hello lass,” he says to me with a smile that shows a missing tooth.
We’re in the visits room of the unit - where prisoners can see their families. It’s empty, apart from a few tables and chairs. The walls are covered in pinks and oranges and greens and blues and yellows.
“It was pretty bland before,” Andy says. “This is where the painting first started. It’s good for the lads, it gives them a bit of confidence.”
Last night, the prison received an Arts Access Leadership Award for its programme. Art is viewed by Corrections as being therapeutic, rehabilitative and reintegrative. Collaborating on works allows offenders to learn to communicate with each other and their tutors, while developing practical skills that can be beneficial on the outside. Some will continue with their art upon release, and perhaps even generate income from it.
In the youth unit, men like Lex, assisted by the tutors they work with, began their murals in the visits room by choosing a word that had meaning to them.
Kia kaha. Freedom. Hope. Trust.
Around the word they created the designs that now adorn the room’s walls. One painting features characters from Spongebob Squarepants with the words “hopeful”, “family”, “love” and “respect”.
Lex is sitting opposite me at a table in the room. He’s wearing grey trackpants and a dark brown rugby jersey with a white collar. I can tell he feels nervous - he’s wringing his hands and his leg is jiggling. He tells me he did “art and stuff” at school, and likes drawing and painting.
“Spray paints were my favourite to use,” he adds as an afterthought, “but we’re not allowed them in here.”
Lex has painted several of the murals in the visits room, and has also helped new prisoners with their own work. Art, he says, is a form of release. “It feels good - letting out what’s inside, using your imagination. It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
He also says it looks better than tagging.
As time goes by, Lex warms up. We move to a different building and he proudly points out another of his murals - it’s a sunrise, with a face with a moko and a kiwi beak. There is a tree and a waterfall erupting from one side of it.
“What you’re looking at now is from inside all the boys’ heads,” Andy says.
He says there’s been a detectable change in the boys’ behaviour since the painting began. Less violence and vandalism, better communication.
“The people that Lex works with might not be the people the he usually plays basketball with. It’s nice for the boys who’ve come from a shit environment.”
Andy says the interactions between prisoners and officers has changed too.
We move to another building in the youth unit, which looks somewhat like a school campus, with a central grassy lawn, trees, a basketball court and beige buildings that look like they were built by the Ministry of Education in the 1970s. There are a few frizbees and a rugby ball on the roof. A black backed gull is pecking a stone.
In the foyer, large circles of colour are painted on a grid, one of which Lex is still working on. It’s green and purple and blue, like paua.
“Have you seen those little crystals with the little crystals inside them?” he asks me.
“Geodes,” Andy says.
“Yeah. It’s sort of like that.”
Later on, in the hallway outside his cell, Lex begins to dance, shuffling on his feet. It morphs into a sort of gentle shadow boxing.
Along the hallway is a series of doors on either side. Everything is painted white. Outside each door is a small whiteboard with a boy’s name. Some have chosen to be vegetarian while in prison, and this is marked on the whiteboard, alongside their tasks for the day.
There are nine different menus available. Prisoners are asked if they have allergies, or if there are any foods they dislike. One prisoner, upon arrival, announced that he didn’t like prawns. Corrections staff told him it was unlikely anyone would be served prawns in prison.
When it’s suggested Lex shows me inside his cell, he blocks the door with his body. With an embarrassed smirk, he says it’s too messy. He and Andy have mock fisty cuffs.
We see inside another boy’s cell, and I realise that though the unit seems deserted, it’s full of young men locked away in their rooms. A small, rectangular section of the boy’s wall is adorned with posters of scantily clad women and cars, family photos, and certificates from various qualifications he’s achieved while in prison. It’s cold.
Lex has completed NCEA levels one and two, got his driver’s and forklift licence, and literacy and numeracy qualifications during time at Christchurch Men’s. He’s also done a course in mechanics through Ara (formerly CPIT) and is learning Samoan from a friend.
Later, I quietly ask Lex if he really gets on that well with the guards. He tells me he does, with an earnestness that doesn’t seem to be faked.
Back in the visits room, Andy is telling me how when he takes the boys for a run in the mornings, he can’t keep up with them, so he rides a bicycle. If they’re not keeping up with him, he threatens to start singing.
With a small amount of encouragement, he demonstrates his ballad of choice.
Chippy tea, chippy tea
I wants a chippy tea
But you keep givin’ posh nosh
It don't agree with me
I don't want lobster thermidor
Or your raspberry coulis
I'm a working man from Lancashire
And I wants a chippy tea
Lex winces. He reckons it gets them moving.
*Lex’s name has been changed.