Inquest findings 'not good enough'

Nicholas Harris' mother Te Enga and his brother Brendon with a photo of Nicholas at their Manurewa home. Photo by Cassandra Mason/Herald Online
Nicholas Harris' mother Te Enga and his brother Brendon with a photo of Nicholas at their Manurewa home. Photo by Cassandra Mason/Herald Online
The family of a man who died while being restrained by officers in his prison cell last year want justice for his death, disputing a coroner's findings that prison staff used "justifiable and necessary restraint".

Thirty-six-year-old Nicholas Harris died while being restrained in a prone position on the floor of his prison cell by Corrections Officers at Waikeria prison, in Waikato, on January 9, 2011.

Harris had been arrested the previous week and was being held on remand.

A coroner's report released earlier this month found Harris died from a combination of asphyxia and morbid obesity.

In his findings Coroner Peter Ryan said the officers used "justifiable and necessary restraint", carried out in accordance with safety guidelines.

This restraint was necessary given the level of aggression and abusiveness Harris had shown towards staff, he found.

But Harris' mother Te Enga said the use of force on her son was not justified, given his high-risk condition and delicate health.

"I'm very upset. Whatever Nicholas' behaviour was, because I was told he was being aggressive and abusive, these words are really important because that's how they justify what happened to him.

"It's not good enough."

Nicholas' brother Brendon said the seven-minute restraining process during which Harris was held down by at least eight Corrections staff was completely inappropriate given his weight, chronic asthma, diabetes and heart problems.

"Someone of his size, just for him to get off the ground would take a lot of effort. So when he's got nine people on him, that's definitely pushing him to the limits," he said.

The coroner said that it was clear that Harris' attitude and behaviour towards the Corrections officers had been major contributing factors in his death.

This behaviour had "necessitated a robust spontaneous control and restraint process".

In a statement issued shortly after the release of the coroner's report, the Department of Corrections expressed their concerns about the death.

"As well as a loss to his family and friends Mr Harris' death has been tremendously stressful for our staff who have been very affected by this. No one wanted or intended that this tragic event would occur.

"It is Corrections' belief that it was absolutely necessary to enter his cell as he was harming himself. It was also imperative that staff entering his cell to prevent him harming himself took steps to ensure their own safety. The method used to restrain Mr Harris was standard practice in this type of situation."

Police investigations concluded there was no cause for prosecution and an investigation by the department determined that its response was measured, it said.

But Mrs Harris said given his mental state at the time, her son should have been in the Kotuku Unit for high-risk prisoners, not a standard cell.

In its statement, the department said it would carefully review the Coroner's findings and "respond appropriately".

"If changes are required to training and procedures we will make them."

But the Harris family wants every case to be treated differently, with Corrections officers to consider prisoners' health and size.

"They held him down until he died," Mrs Harris said. "I want to take it to court because I'm disputing them. We want to take it higher."

- By Cassanda Mason of nzherald.co.nz

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