Prison reforms need to speed up

It is easy to understand Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier’s exasperation at the "glacial" pace of change in our prisons.

He is frustrated that recommendations made following inspections from his team are found mostly not to have been implemented.

The most recent instances of Corrections’ tardiness in complying with recommendations were identified during follow-up inspections of Christchurch Men’s Prison and Whanganui Prison last year.

In Christchurch Men’s Prison he found that of the 54 recommendations made in 2017, 27 had not been achieved and only 12 partially achieved when his team revisited last year. He repeated 26 recommendations and made one new one.

In relation to Whanganui Prison, of the 35 recommendations made following an inspection in 2018, inspectors found 20 had not been achieved or only partially achieved last year. Thirteen repeat recommendations were made and another one added.

The issues Judge Boshier’s inspectors were raising were not trivial. They included unnecessary and disproportionate use of force, the use of dry cells which have no toilets or running water, substandard cells, the inappropriate use of restraint techniques, the serving of evening meals at 3.30pm, and poor treatment of a transgender prisoner.

He had some praise, including for the reduction in double-bunking at Whanganui and improved interaction between prisoners and staff at Christchurch.

What looks like Corrections’ thumbing its nose at the Ombudsman’s office is serious. It makes a mockery of New Zealand signing up to the United Nations’ Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 2007.

Under this, the Chief Ombudsman has the responsibility to monitor prisons and other places of detention to ensure they meet international rights.

He concentrates on making sure prisons have sufficient safeguards to prevent human rights violations. Where he finds violations, he recommends improvements to address risks, poor practices, or systemic problems.

But what Judge Boshier is finding is that, unlike most other organisations where when he makes recommendations they are implemented, this is not happening with Corrections.

The latest report is merely the last in an increasingly long line of serious concerns from Judge Boshier and other agencies, including the Prison Inspectorate and the Human Rights Commission, about aspects of our jails and treatment of prisoners.

Recently, we have read of pregnant inmates being shackled during birth (a practice supposed to have been abandoned years ago) and following birth, including when women were attempting to breast-feed. It is hard to understand how any staff with an ounce of humanity could witness such degrading events and consider them acceptable. Are staff encouraged to raise concerns about any practices they see as dehumanising or is the culture such that this is difficult, or worse, that such poor treatment is somehow normalised?

Hopefully, Judge Boshier will get to the nub of that in what he expects to be a year-long investigation into how Corrections has responded to repeated calls for reforms.

He wants to know why he has not seen significant and sustained improvements to prisoners’ welfare and rehabilitation, despite concerns raised by him and others, and report after report calling for change.

We wonder what part the Government oversight of this department, or lack of it, has played in this inertia. Any other governance body, faced with a slew of Ombudsman recommendations, would be expected to ensure management addressed them. While it waits for the Ombudsman’s report, it would be sensible for the Government to do what it can to hasten change.

Comments

Boshier isn't a judge anymore so stop calling him that. Things won't get better until select committees use the Ombudsman's reports to start inquiries and drag ministers and chief executives in front of them to demand progress on implementing recommendations.

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