Skantha prison death prompts change

Nigel Hampton
Nigel Hampton
The sudden death of a Dunedin murderer behind bars has sparked a "life-saver" change to national court processes, the Otago Daily Times can reveal.

Venod Skantha, who was convicted of murdering Dunedin teenager Amber-Rose Rush in 2018, is believed to have taken his own life at Otago Corrections Facility near Milton in mid-April, just hours after learning of a Court of Appeal decision upholding his conviction.

His death revealed the courts did not inform prisons when a judgement was released.

That meant processes could not be put in place to assess the level of risk prisoners posed to themselves.

After a review into the incident, the Court of Appeal confirmed Corrections would now be notified of judgements at the same time as defence and Crown lawyers.

The news was welcomed by those working in the justice system, who had been surprised and frustrated it was not already happening.

Corrections Association president Alan Whitley yesterday said the change was a life-saver.

"It’s a good change. The whole thing was an unfortunate incident for the prisoner and his family," he said.

He previously told the Otago Daily Times that there had been other instances in which inmates had received bad news and either attempted to take their own life, or had successfully taken their own life, before staff became aware.

The change meant staff would have the information they needed to put support in place for prisoners who might be at risk, he said.

In a statement, a Corrections spokesman said it was aware of the change and was working with staff to incorporate it into its systems.

"We welcome any such change that assists us all in improving our practice but we have nothing further to add at this stage."

Prominent lawyer Nigel Hampton QC had previously expressed surprise that the sharing of information was not already happening.

An adverse judgement was likely to have an emotional impact on an inmate, and given how vulnerable many of them were, it made sense that Corrections was told so it could put support in place to ensure their wellbeing.

Yesterday, he said others in the legal profession had also been surprised, and he was pleased the situation had changed.

"This is the right thing to do."

Corrections conducts risk assessments with inmates in certain situations, such as when they receive an adverse court judgement.

But those assessments had only been happening if staff became aware of the judgement through informal means, such as being told by a lawyer or the prisoner themselves.

Mr Hampton had described that system as haphazard.

Skantha’s lawyer, Jonathan Eaton QC, declined to comment yesterday.

Figures released to the ODT last year showed there were 67 self-harm incidents that posed a risk to life in New Zealand prisons in 2019.

Between 2014 and 2019, there were 32 apparent suicides in prisons, including two in Invercargill Prison and two in the Otago Corrections Facility.