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
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
"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
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