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Usually, at this time of year, unless we have friends or family members behind bars, we are unlikely to give prisons much thought.
We might show a fleeting interest in news of the Christmas Day prison menu and, depending on our mindset about prisoners, we will either appreciate them having a little festive fare or feel they do not deserve it.
This year, however, we have been confronted with uncomfortable findings from Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier after an 11-strong investigation team made an eight-day surprise visit to the country’s only maximum-security facility, Auckland Prison, in late January-early February this year.
Judge Boshier’s report does not make for cheery reading. Among his findings was that there had been two breaches of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
One involved pepper-spraying a prisoner even though he was obeying officers’ orders. Judge Boshier said this was unwarranted and amounted to cruel treatment. Also, staff failed to accurately report the incident.
The second breach related to the closed-circuit television (CCTV) monitoring of all sections, including toilets, of the Intervention Support Unit (a dedicated facility for those prisoners deemed vulnerable or at risk). This footage was displayed where it could be seen by anyone entering the staff base. He found this was a serious breach of privacy and dignity amounting to degrading treatment under the convention.
New maximum-security units opened on the Paremoremo site in 2018 were supposed to herald a new emphasis on rehabilitation, but Judge Boshier found those in the new units were locked in their cells most of the time and not able to take part in rehabilitation or education programmes.
Staff shortages affected prisoners’ day-to-day routines, including some prisoners receiving their evening meal as early as 2.30pm or 3pm.
Prisoners confined to their cells for 22 and 23 hours a day, some spending more than a year in directed segregation, well outside the 15-day maximum under the Nelson Mandela Rules, poorly ventilated cells, high numbers of surveyed prisoners saying they had been assaulted or sexually assaulted, and no process for referring drug users to treatment were among the other issues highlighted in the investigation.
It was concerning to read staff were not routinely activating their on-body cameras at the beginning of incidents involving the use of force, so some recordings only showed the management of a prisoner after the event.
Judge Boshier made 37 recommendations, 33 of which were accepted by the Corrections Department and four partially accepted.
However, when Judge Boshier visited the prison at the beginning of this month to check on progress he found little had changed and containment rather than rehabilitation remained the focus.
Staff shortages and inexperienced staff have had an impact on this lack of progress, although Judge Boshier points out the country’s prison population has reduced by about 2500 in recent years which should allow for better planning.
Moving the culture from containment to rehabilitation will not be easy, and nobody would envy the task of those who must deal with the most difficult prisoners.
But change is necessary and not just at Paremoremo. Judge Boshier’s report came hard on the heels of complaints about poor treatment of some women at Auckland Women’s Prison and a Human Rights Commission report saying segregation and restraint is still being used far too much in prisons, young people’s residences and health and disability units.
Pressure for progress must be maintained. We hope Judge Boshier’s team will visit other facilities unannounced to see how they are shaping up. We need to know.
As Nelson Mandela said, possibly channelling writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, ‘‘it is said that no-one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.’’