The Yoghurt Mafia: Wal and Dylan. Photo: Claire Eastham-Farrelly for RNZ

The yoghurt mafia of Rangipo Prison

Locked up for their part in a drug ring, two inmates swapped manufacturing meth for manufacturing yoghurt. RNZ’s Eva Corlett finds out how they turned their product into a prison trading commodity so popular that yoghurt culture was smuggled between prisons.

On an autumn night in the heart of the North Island two prisoners watch television in their cells. It seems to be a night as routine as those before it; and with the monotonous years of their sentences furled before them, like many expected to come.

The televisions flicker in unison, blue-white light lingering on the cell walls. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the enthusiastic English chef on The River Cottage, describes how to make homemade yoghurt: a smear of culture, a little milk and some heat.

Wal, alert, fidgety and always hungry for a new hobby, thinks “I can do this” and commits the lesson to memory. He yells through the wall to Dylan, his cell neighbour, co-offender and best friend of 20 years: “Bro, are you watching this?” Dylan, lying back on his bed, mumbles that he is. “We’re doing this tomorrow!” Wal shouts. “We’re making this.” Dylan, as usual, defers to his friend’s latest obsession.

They don’t know it yet but that moment will change their lives. Not only will they go on to make yoghurt using heat from the radiator pipes running through their cells, they’ll turn yoghurt into a prison trading commodity so popular it will be smuggled between New Zealand jails. Wal and Dylan will become known as The Yoghurt Mafia, and their new obsession will give them a reason to carry on in a relentlessly bleak environment.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall from The River Cottage making yoghurt. (Image: The River Cottage)

It began with meth addiction and snowballed into manufacture and supply. Dylan was a runner — a minor player in a big operation — to feed his own habit. Wal cooked the drug.

But really the story began long before that. For Dylan it started when he was a young teen, growing up in the Coromandel on the North Island’s east coast. It was the 1990s and he was enmeshed in the world of surfers and skaters. He cruised about, partying, playing up at school, staying away from home.

“My parents were pretty dysfunctional. There was no violence, but there was infidelity and there was a lot of drugs and alcohol around.”

While his mum was his rock, he felt his father was like a storm — unpredictable, gregarious, destructive, absent. Dylan gravitated to drugs as an escape. “Drugs gave me a buffer against the world,” he says — and they were easy to come by in the small surfing village.

At first, those drugs were alcohol and weed, but soon his curiosity led him to try others: ecstasy, acid, heroin, whatever he could get his hands on. When he tried meth, or “P”, in his late 20s, he felt invincible. It became his armour.

Wal (Tainui) grew up in the neighbouring Waikato region. He came from a different type of dysfunction, one marked with violence, borne out of a vicious colonial legacy that disenfranchised Māori and brutally severed families from their land, their whānau and their taonga.

“Once Were Warriors,” he pauses, “was an understatement for me.”

Two of his older brothers and a younger brother have also been to prison. “I guess I followed suit,” Wal says with some resignation. “But I think it moulded me in some ways, made me resilient.”

At high school, while his friends were getting into alcohol and weed, Wal was addicted to sport. But his sporting aspirations came to an abrupt end during a rugby league match, when he tore a major quadricep muscle and ruptured his Achilles tendon. Injured and bored, he turned to drugs, and was up for trying anything.

“I didn’t realise that it was possibly an escape. Looking back now, I see it was part of a survival mechanism … trying to find the joy somewhere, I guess.”

It was during their party days that Dylan met Wal. They were kindred spirits and formed an immediate bond. For most of their young adult lives, the pair took drugs socially. But when P came on to the scene, in their late twenties, their personal habits soon developed into addiction. Then, to feed their habits, they made P their full-time jobs.

“As soon as your usage goes up, you deal more and it completely snowballs,” Wal says.

It spiralled into a life neither could have predicted: major drug-dealing, deepening addictions, more money than they had ever known, threats of violence from gangs, driving expensive cars while looking over their shoulders for the police.

“I definitely had ways of justifying it to myself. We’re not violent guys, we just did it to fuel our addictions,” Dylan says.

Wal found enjoyment in creating the drug — it was a challenge; it was chemistry. “I had seen it done, and thought, ‘I could do that’.”

But it went downhill quickly.

‘P’ was still relatively new on the scene but the evidence of its highly addictive qualities, its terrible effects on a user’s mood and body, and its ongoing harm in the community captured police attention.

The police busted them, and nine others, following a six-month operation in 2010. Wal, the number two in the drug ring, was sentenced to 14 years. Dylan, who was further down the rungs, got seven years, which was knocked back to 4.5 years because he’d spent time getting clean in rehab.

After some shuffling between prisons, the pair ended up side-by-side in Rangipo Prison in 2013.

Rangipo Prison, now decommissioned and folded into Tongariro Prison, is a squat, low and medium security prison, that looks at odds with the dramatic plains of Tongariro National Park. It is remote and barely noticeable, down a short road not far from Lake Taupō. The cellblocks are dwarfed by the maunga, its iced peaks gentle and otherworldly in a pink dawn; brutal and impenetrable in the depths of winter. Pine forest stretches out in thick arteries across the landscape, up into the crumpled hills behind the prison and thinning out as it reaches the edge of the tussocked plains.

The Ombudsman recognises the facility as a “centre of excellence”. As far as prisons go, it’s not the worst, Dylan says. But it is a prison nonetheless, and inside, time looms large.

Inside, you must forget about the outside or you’ll forget yourself, Dylan says, adding that the men who make phone calls every day to the outside, the ones needing to know how the world is moving on without them, suffer the most.

“It f***s with your head, it can make people go crazy,” Wal says.

Scared, stripped of their freedom, entering the unknown, Dylan and Wal kept their heads down and avoided getting caught up in prison politics. To help pass the time, they read, watched soap operas on television and occasionally played Scrabble or poker. Come night, they were locked in their cells and left alone with their thoughts, forced to reckon with their pasts.

It is against prison rules for prisoners to make “unauthorised” food in their cells. Guards are particularly watchful for inmates stashing sugar or fruit to brew alcohol. But prisoners have always been inventive at spicing up their high-carbohydrate, low-taste meals and using what meagre supplies they can buy from the canteen — or trading them to develop recipes. Farmbake biscuits are smashed into crumbs, combined with milk and thrown in the microwave to create fluffy chocolate “jail cake”.

“That recipe has been passed down through prison generations,” Dylan says. “And I’m yet to find something that doesn’t taste better with peanut butter,” Wal adds. “Milk powder too,” Dylan says.“It’s the biggest commodity in prison. That, and Tim Tams.”

They were roughly six months into serving their sentences when they happened to watch the yoghurt episode of The River Cottage that Sunday evening.

Yoghurt is a luxury in prison, Dylan says, and most prisoners don’t get it. But those working in physical jobs occasionally do, to boost their protein intake. Fortunately Wal, with a job as a prison painter, was one of them.

Having learnt to hunt and grow food as a child, Wal is a long-time fan of The River Cottage series, which sees Fearnley-Whittingstall celebrate rural self-sufficiency. Wal was also a self-described yoghurt addict. Yet he had never thought to make his own until he saw his culinary hero do it with minimal tools and supplies.

“It intrigued me, and I thought, if he’s doing it, I can do it. So that became my sole mission,” Wal says.

 

It is Monday morning and Wal’s head is full of the yoghurt-making tips he has seen on River Cottage the night before. He keeps his lunchtime punnet of apricot yoghurt close, then smuggles it back into his cell unnoticed. He buys a small cardboard carton of trim milk from the canteen, Dylan contributes some milk powder, and the pair get to work.

In the shared kitchen in the corner of their complex, they rip open the cardboard container, drain out a swig of milk, add milk powder to enhance the fat content and wait in line for the communal microwave.

It is the only tool they have to get the milk to boiling point—a task that needs careful monitoring in case it explodes. They need to kill any bad bacteria held in the milk to make way for the good culture to grow.

So, with bodies bent and elbows rooted to the bench top, they watch the carton circling inside the microwave. It is a moment of distraction, a brief hypnosis. Just as the milk reaches the point of bubbling over, they stop the microwave and pull out the carton.

They wait for the milk to cool, before adding their apricot yoghurt. Too hot and the culture will die, too cold and there will be no warmth for it to grow and change.

With no thermometer available, the pair take turns testing the heat with their fingertips. When it is scalding, Dylan finds it “burns like tear gas”. And so they wait. When it cools to just above tepid, Wal adds the whole punnet of yoghurt, not realising that just a smear of culture is enough to alter a whole batch of milk.

The pair kept their yoghurt culture alive using heat from the radiator pipes running through their cells. (Image: RNZ)

They take their concoction back to their cells, where two thick hot water pipes run in parallel lines across the rear wall of the 3m by 2m units. Wal wraps the carton in a t-shirt,wedges it between the pipes, and waits.

That night, with the temperature dropping close to zero, Wal worries about whether the life beginning in the carton on the pipes behind his head will survive. Through the quiet dark hours, he checks on it periodically and tenderly, as if it were a newborn baby.

As morning breaks, he unwraps his creation. Inside the carton, the once thin milk is as thick and creamy, as sweet and delicious as any yoghurt plucked from a supermarket shelf. He is astonished.

Amped with anticipation, he and Dylan take their yoghurt to breakfast and smother it on their porridge. To Dylan, it tastes better than the original.

Their fellow prisoners watch on with envy from the neighbouring tables. Wal is excited and isn’t feeling modest. He parades their creation around the facility proudly, opening the carton to curious eyes and whetting the appetite of the other prisoners—many desperate for a taste of something new.

Wal and Dylan are more than happy to oblige. They hold workshops around the microwave. Men gather, ready to learn—first, a few friends, then their wider unit and, increasingly, those living in other parts of the prison.

They carefully tutor their cellmates over why higher-fat milk makes better yoghurt, coach them on how to check the temperature, and direct them over the length of time the culture needs to spend on the hot water pipes.

Dylan and Wal hand out spoonfuls of culture to help others get started with their own cartons. For those lacking the motivation to make it themselves, Dylan and Wal do it for them in exchange for food, such as milk powder and chicken. Being novel, nutritious and tasty, the yoghurt becomes a popular trading commodity.

One night, there is a blizzard. It sweeps down off the mountain, howls across the plains and through the prison. The snow builds up around the units and the men shiver. The power goes down. The hot water pipes start to cool and Dylan is terrified for his yoghurt. He keeps it wrapped and close to his body, hoping it will live. But during the frigid hours, it dies.

Disappointed but determined, the pair start again from scratch. There is no other choice: they are prisoners possessed. Their days are utterly focused on yoghurt—buying milk, keeping the culture warm, developing recipes, negotiating trades to fuel their new addiction. It is the very distraction they need to forget the world outside the wire.

Soon, Wal and Dylan’s hot water pipes are again lined with cartons, huddled in rows like roosting birds, the bacteria changing and growing as it ferments in the carefully created conditions. They decide to experiment with it. Dylan pours the yoghurt into a clean t-shirt, and with it cradled over the sink, drains off the whey until it thickens into a Greek yoghurt. They conceive their most elaborate recipe yet — a thick yoghurt cheesecake, made fruity-flavoured with Raro juice sachets, sitting on a bed of crushed Tim Tams.

When Rangipo inmates, taught by Wal and Dylan, are moved to other prisons, they take their new skills and yoghurt culture with them. Soon, Wal and Dylan are hearing of their original culture being smuggled into prisons far away in the South Island.

Corrections officers seem to turn a blind eye. When officers search Wal and Dylan’s cells, they ask what is wrapped up on the hot water pipes. Dylan explains it is yoghurt. The officers laugh and ask the pair how they have learnt to make it. Wal tells them The River Cottage.

In 2015, Dylan is released from Rangipo Prison. Wal remains there serving his longer sentence. It is the first time they have been separated in two years.

But within the year, Dylan breaches his parole conditions with a driving charge, and is sent back to prison — this time to Hawke’s Bay Regional Prison, formerly known as Mangaroa.

Once inside, he starts holding yoghurt workshops and also signs up for a prison-led creative writing class.

He and some of his new yoghurt-making mates create an episodic narrative series titled “The Yoghurt Mafia”, basing the lead characters on themselves, and drawing inspiration from real-life prisoners and Corrections officers. Occasionally those around them are reinterpreted in less than flattering ways as the men find ways to take digs at one another and entertain themselves.

The stories become so detailed, so elaborate, so widely discussed, that real-life gang members start sizing up Dylan and his mates and probing them over whether they really are mobsters.

The stories are embellished but the moniker sticks, and Dylan and Wal become known as The Yoghurt Mafia.

It is a cool May evening in 2021, and Dylan and Wal are perched before a crackling fire at Wal’s Auckland home. Wal’s hand-carved pounamu pendants hang on the shelves next to the hearth. In the next room, his partner and dog are snuggled up watching television. Outside, the sky is as dark as tar.

Both wear the history of their drug use on their skin—slightly mottled and leathery.

For a tough-looking guy, Dylan, 45, is softly spoken and shy. “We get called the Yoghurt Mafia, and the Mumble Mob,” he laughs.

He wears a flat-peaked cap low over his forehead, shielding his deep-set blue eyes. He is at his most animated when talking about life on the inside, or about Wal. In between those moments he oscillates between being a quiet observer and a daydreamer.

Smaller in build than Dylan and the elder of the two, Wal, 47, breaks off into peals of laughter between the sentences he delivers at lightning speed. He is wound like a tightly sprung coil, restless, ready to pop off on some other train of thought at any moment. His laughter follows him as he darts between rooms, drawing attention to his many self-taught projects.

Wal and Dylan at Wal’s home in Auckland. (Image: RNZ)

He is modest about his innate ability to pick up a skill and learn it inside out faster than most. But his pride in his latest hobby — carving pounamu — is evident as he gently places jade-green taonga in my hand, describing the meaning of each, and the significance of the stone, one by one.

They are still quick to finish each other’s sentences and have built up a Rolodex of in-jokes and shared experiences to draw from—none more fondly told than that of The Yoghurt Mafia,the project that allowed them to ‘find the joy somewhere’ and escape the tedium of time.

“It was a part of my routine that kept me sane in a way. I tried to avoid thinking about the outside world as much as possible,” Dylan says.

For Wal, the hobbyist, it was a project that helped him relax.

“Routines, hobbies like that soak up hours of the time. It makes time just disappear. Because you’re just trying to get home,” he says.

And yoghurt-making sat outside of the prison-led programmes, so it was not only transgressive, it belonged to them.

“The fact it was our project was taking the power back. They had control of everything else,” Dylan says.

Beyond that, it gave them a sense of identity, in a place where it is all too easy to become a statistic.

“Everything is taken away from you. Your dignity is stripped away from you the first day you arrive, ” Wal says.

“It was a challenge, but you also had a result. It was great fun too, trying to perfect it,” he adds.

“In a place [prison], when you shouldn’t be able to achieve f***-all, when everything is limited… to do that there is an even bigger achievement.”

“And to maintain it too,” Dylan adds.

“Yeah and to maintain it too,” Wal nods.

It hasn’t escaped Dylan and Wal that they went from cooking drugs on the outside for trade to cooking yoghurt on the inside for trade. Nor was it lost on the Corrections Officers.

“The guards found it quite ironic,” Dylan says.

“I think one of the guards laughed ‘You boys just can’t stop it can you’,” Wal adds.

But if there was irony, there was also a metaphor in their switch from meth to yoghurt. Like yoghurt, if the conditions are right, if there is patience and there is care, people can change and a new kind of culture can survive.

Dylan now lives in the South Island with his fiancée, in a place he describes as “paradise”. He works in roofing and masonry and is gearing up for the snowboarding season. Wal lives in Auckland with his partner but hopes to move out of the city one day to live his own River Cottage dream.

“That’s the ticket right there, that’s what we should all be doing,” he says.

And as for yoghurt?

Dylan coyly admits his yoghurt-making has fallen off in the last couple of years, because he has never made it quite as well as he did in prison. But when he does get around to making yoghurt, he’s very particular about it.

As for Wal, he eats “a stupid amount” of yoghurt every day.

Neither have any desire to return to their former life, nor to prison. But both agree their experience as The Yoghurt Mafia has helped them to appreciate the simpler things.

“Don’t go to jail, kids,” Dylan is quick to warn.

“Yeah don’t go to jail, kids,” Wal echoes, before pausing.

“But do make yoghurt!” he says, and the pair erupt into laughter.

Where to get help

Alcohol Drug Helpline – 0800 787 797 or alcoholdrughelp.org.nz
Drug Help – drughelp.org.nz

This article first appeared on RNZ

Reporting
Eva Corlett

Editor
Veronica Schmidt

Photography and video
Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Additional camera
Luke McPake

Art direction and design
Vinay Ranchhod 




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