Jason Palmer (prison guard)

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Jason Palmer (c. 1977 – 16 May 2010), a United States-born former Marine, was the first prison guard in New Zealand to die on active duty. He was punched by an inmate and fell, hitting his head on the floor, and dying in hospital the next day.[1]


Born in South Carolina, Palmer attended Jefferson High School in West Virginia and then spent four years in the United States Marine Corps, including time at Quantico Marine Corps base.[2] He met a New Zealand woman, Tracy, online and moved to New Zealand where they married a year later. When he died, he was survived by Tracy and three children: Taylor 15, Riley, 5, and Abbey, 3.[3]


Palmer worked at the Spring Hill Corrections Facility. Palmer was killed by Latu Savelio Halangingie Kepu while unlocking the door to Kepu's cell with two other officers. As the door opened, Kepu swung a punch at Palmer who fell back and hit his head on the concrete pathway outside the cell. Palmer died in hospital the next day when his life support was discontinued.[4] There had been previous confrontations between Kepu and Palmer and Palmer had laid several misconduct charges against Kepu, including one the day before the deadly attack. Palmer had allegedly requested to be moved from that unit in writing due to death threats from Kepu, but his requests were apparently denied. Also not mentioned in the official inquiry is that the 3 officers including Jason Palmer that unlocked Kepu that day were very inexperienced - the most senior officer on the unit that day had been moved down to a low-security unit due to staffing shortages. At the inquest, much was made of the "lack" of high-security process during he unlock; such as why Kepu wasn't made to stand with his hands on the wall as he was unlocked. This focus obscured the real reason why Jason's death occurred in a supposedly low-security prison - managerial incompetence.[5]

Kepu had been reclassified as a maximum security prisoner because he had already seriously assaulted another officer 3 weeks previously, but had not yet been relocated to the maximum security facility at Paremoremo because they did not have any room. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to six years and four months in prison.[6] He appealed the length of the sentence, but this was declined.[7]

Kepu is a member of the Killer Beez, gang[8] and reports arose that claimed the death was a gang-ordered hit, whilst prison staff members were well aware of threats made against Palmer.[9] The Corrections Department denied the claim made by these reports, stating that an internal investigation had found that prison management and staff were not at fault. Palmer's mother, Ada Palmer, disagreed with the findings of the Corrections Department's investigation. It was reported that Ada Palmer said, "They said it was an accident... it is a cover-up."[5][10]

Judith Collins, then Minister of Corrections, described Palmer's death as the saddest day in the department's history[11] and moved in Parliament "that this House express its deep sympathy and condolences to the wife, family, friends, and colleagues of Spring Hill Corrections Officer Jason Palmer, who died on Sunday as a result of an assault by a prisoner."[12]


  1. ^ "Corrections defends safety record after guard's death". Stuff. Fairfax New Zealand. NZPA. 16 May 2010. Retrieved 31 May 2012.
  2. ^ "Searching for answers". www2.insidenova.com. 18 May 2010. Retrieved 12 December 2011.
  3. ^ "Jefferson grad killed". journal-news.net. 19 May 2010. Retrieved 12 December 2011.
  4. ^ "Threats made against prison guard before death". stuff.co.nz. 12 December 2011. Retrieved 12 December 2011.
  5. ^ a b Steve Hopkins (22 August 2010). "Gang 'ordered' jail hit". Stuff. Fairfax New Zealand. Retrieved 31 May 2012.
  6. ^ "Inmate who killed prison guard sentenced". nzherald.co.nz. 17 September 2010. Retrieved 12 December 2011. Inmate Latu Kepu has been sentenced to six years and four months jail for the manslaughter of Waikato prison guard Jason Palmer.
  7. ^ "Appeal of man who killed prison guard dismissed". nzherald.co.nz. 28 March 2011. Retrieved 12 December 2011. Inmate Latu Kepu, who killed prison guard Jason Palmer with a single punch, has had his appeal against his sentence dismissed by the Court of Appeal.
  8. ^ "Prison guard died of blunt trauma to head". stuff.co.nz. 18 May 2010. Retrieved 12 December 2011. The inmate, a Killabeez gang member, appeared in Hamilton District Court yesterday on one charge of assault.
  9. ^ "Gang 'ordered' jail hit". stuff.co.nz. 22 August 2010. Retrieved 12 December 2011. The attack that resulted in the first killing of a New Zealand prison guard on duty was gang-ordered and the Corrections Department knew of the threat to dad-of-three Jason Palmer weeks before, a source has told Sunday News.
  10. ^ Ian Steward (13 December 2011). "Guard's safety threatened previously, inquest hears". Stuff. Fairfax New Zealand. Retrieved 31 May 2012.
  11. ^ Corrections on defensive after prison guard death, NZ Herald, 16 May 2010.
  12. ^ "Motions — Department of Corrections—Death of Corrections Officer Jason Palmer". parliament.nz. 18 May 2010. Retrieved 12 December 2011. Hon Judith Collins (Minister of Corrections): I seek leave to move a motion without notice on the recent death of corrections officer Jason Palmer.