Skantha death must prompt change

The sudden death of convicted murderer Venod Skantha on Wednesday was no doubt greeted with satisfaction by many, that a doctor who killed a teenager in a brutal and heartless manner was no more.

But the death of Skantha is an utterly unsatisfactory outcome in many ways, and must be the catalyst for a meaningful review of court and Department of Corrections procedures.

The Government, through the agency of Corrections, has a duty of care for all prisoners: to stop them harming themselves, to stop them harming others, and to serve the sentence that the courts have imposed on them for their transgressions.

The coroner will investigate the circumstances of Skantha’s death, as will the independent Inspectorate of Corrections, but even before their conclusions are delivered this event should have alarm bells well and truly ringing.

Skantha acted within minutes of receiving news that the Court of Appeal had not just rejected his appeal against conviction, but also said it was satisfied that he was guilty beyond reasonable doubt of murdering Amber-Rose Rush in Dunedin in 2018.

This would no doubt have been stressful news for Skantha to hear, and it beggars belief that staff at the Otago Corrections Facility were not also immediately told to increase surveillance of Skantha as he processed an outcome which would have left him deeply disappointed.

It raises the question of when and how Corrections staff are appraised of legal developments which affect far lower profile prisoners than Skantha and what welfare measures are taken in those cases.

Had this happened in a police cell rather than a prison cell, it is quite possible a homicide inquiry would have been opened: Corrections should be held to the same high standard.

In 2016 Corrections commissioned a report into suicide in New Zealand prisons after a spike in numbers, and the following year it implemented a mental health strategy for inmates.

Suicide numbers then fell, but this death should be a sign that a review of processes should happen.

More specifically OCF, which last year had an inmate convicted for sexually assaulting a cellmate, should already have had the security and wellbeing of prisoners on its radar screen.

Whatever one’s opinion of Skantha, he had a family who will be grieving, and who will be wondering if all that could have been done to prevent this outcome was done.

The same point was made by Amber-Rose’s father, in a gracious response to the news.

The Rush family may well find themselves with a feeling of justice being denied in the case of Amber-Rose: Venod Skantha will now not serve the life sentence he was ordered to serve in 2019.

Many will feel that Skantha’s death is good riddance to bad rubbish, that the page should be turned and life should move on.

To do so would be to abdicate Correction’s responsibilities.

Inquiries will do nothing for Skantha and little for his family, or the Rushes for that matter, but they may prevent another such sad outcome in future cases.

And Another Thing

It is reassuring that a report released yesterday compliments southern health staff for a timely and appropriate response to the Waikouaiti water crisis.

Doctors and nurses, generally, excel in crisis management, as we have seen during the pandemic, and they did so again once this issue was discovered.

The big question remains unanswered though — how did the township’s water come to have such high lead levels?

Meanwhile, residents in Waikouaiti, Karitane and Hawksbury are still waiting for safe water to once more be piped to their taps.

Those people will still be eagerly awaiting action, and answers.


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