20 Apr 2021

Ex-inmate takes Serco to court over mistreatment claims

From Checkpoint, 5:09 pm on 20 April 2021

A former inmate is taking prison operator Serco to court for allegedly treating him in a degrading and inhumane way - something Serco categorically denies.

Peter Rerekura has now completed his prison time after he was sentenced to nine and a half years for a string of crimes, including beating his daughter and traffic offences.

He spent about a year in the Auckland South Corrections facility, which is operated by the private contractor Serco.

While there, among other things he says he was subjected to repeated degrading strip searches, segregated without proper reason, required to defecate in front of guards and forced to clean himself up with his hands, with no water to wash afterwards.

Now, with the help of another inmate, he has filed legal action.

"Everyone deserves a chance in life, everyone has rights. We do have love and care in ourselves, we have families who support us and come and see us. We have friends, partners, parents," he told Checkpoint.

"We've just all screwed up along the way, but it doesn't mean [they] can just close the door on us."

On 17 December 2020, Rerekura's partner visited him at the facility. Rerekura was wearing overalls with a cable-tie lock on the zip, which is compulsory for contact visits.

Serco claimed at this meeting he was passed contraband when his partner touched his bottom.

Rerekura said guards did two rub-down searches based on their suspicions. He was put in a holding cell and strip-searched twice, in the presence of several officers and security cameras.

"They make you take overalls off and doing whatever else is underneath. You take it all off then you pass it to them, one item at a time. Then they make you stand up against the wall, and once they feel the clothing and stuff they've taken from you has got nothing on them, they give them out to the next officers and they make you do a squat.

"When you do a squat they tell you to bend right over … because they want to see your [anus] and [testicles].

"You've got one officer down on his knees and he's trying to have a good look at whatever he's supposed to be looking for. Then they make you spin around, tell you to turn around and face them.

"Then you've got to lift up your genitals and show them you've got nothing in there. Then you've got to lift up your armpits and all that.

"You're naked, so the humiliation behind all that… they're all standing there, then they make you spin around again, you have to go down again. They make you do it like three times."

Rerekura said the searches were excessive, degrading and without good cause. Nothing was found.

After that he was put in directed segregation in a dry cell: solitary confinement in a room with no water or toilet.

Section 60 of the Corrections Act allows a prison manager to order an inmate to be segregated for medical oversight.

"The room has no toilet in there, no drinking water, it's a concrete cell with just a concrete bed, it has a mattress, in-built pillow. The garment they give you is one I assume goes on a mental patient.

"They give you a gown like that and that's all they give you."

When he needed to urinate he had to push a button to alert a prison officer.

"No-one answers, so you're waiting for when they decide to come down and answer the intercom.

"They pass you a piss bottle. You put your piss in there, then you pass it back to them. But at the same time, before they do that they have to get another officer. One officer can't do it. There has to be two or three officers there.

"You're passing your urine into the bottle, you've got to stand in front of them, everything you've got to reveal to them. When you pass your urine back to them, they've got a bag and they're all dressed up in head gear, gloves, they've got the full monty on.

"The suit and all this stuff, thinking you're going to catch something. So, they grab it all and then they put it in the bag, and then they check it."

Container for urine too small, 'playing God with the toilet paper'

In his written complaint, Rerekura said it was difficult to urinate in the container provided.

He told Checkpoint it was too small, and urine would spill onto the floor.

Rerekura said officers told him they would not give him anything to clean it. So he resorted to using bread from his meal to mop it up.

"Even though I'm inside a dirty, disgusting place, it doesn't mean I want to eat around my own urine."

If he had to poo, Rerekura said he was given a dish and told to lift his genitals.

"Most embarrassed, but I'm just wanting to try and get this over and done with … they're playing God with the toilet paper, so I ended up taking sh** on my fingers. I said: 'Can I have something to wash my hands?' They said no.

"They just said: 'Pass that container here', and they shut the door. So what I did, I pissed on my hands. I used my own piss to wash the sh** off my hands."

Rerekura claims he was targeted because he had other legal action pending against the prison operator, Serco.

Aside from this claim, Checkpoint is aware of several other cases against Serco alleging mistreatment or abuses of prisoner rights.

Serco would not tell Checkpoint exactly how many cases there were.

Rerekura claims Serco did not give him the legally-required paperwork when they segregated him.  During the three days he was in the dry cell he claims he was denied ready access to his heart medication, and the cell door was kicked regularly, including in the night. He says he thinks it was sleep torture.

Documents show Serco conducted observations every 15 minutes.

"How can they be doing that, and it's 2020," Rerekura said. "How could that be still happening in our jails … they say they're to care for the prisoners and everything else that comes with it – to rehabilitate them, to support them, to make them go back out into society to be good men."

He said the experience left him feeling ashamed, embarrassed and belittled.

Rerekura has requested relevant footage from CCTV cameras at the facility, but Serco has not yet provided the material.

In the dry cell after being given an inappropriate container to urinate in, and not enough toilet paper, Rerekura asked repeatedly for a shower. He eventually got one on the second day.

However he was left handcuffed during the shower, despite having a disability in which one of his hands is in a permanent semi-clenched position. It is something he said he was mocked about.

After three days and no contraband found, Rerekura said he was returned his normal wing.

In a statement, Serco said actions must be recorded or witnessed by staff. It would not say if the camera footage still existed.

Serco said it was vigorously defending the case. It said contraband was a challenge facing all New Zealand prisons, and it had robust search, detection and deterrent processes.

Regarding dry cells, Serco said: "The introduction of contraband through ingestion or secretion can have serious medical implications and the paiāki (man in our care) will be managed under Section 60 of the Corrections Act 2004. He will then be closely monitored by medical staff.

"Where we have grounds to suspect a substance has been ingested, we have a duty of care for the man's medical welfare as well as an obligation to prevent the introduction of drugs and its supply to others.

"Paiāki will be placed in a dry cell until he has completed three motions, or the contraband is recovered. These situations are difficult for both paiāki and staff, given the processes required to ensure contraband is recovered and risk to both paiāki and kohuora is minimised."

Rerekura maintained his time in the dry cell was three days of humiliation and degrading treatment, where he was made to feel like an animal.

He said it does not fit with Corrections' new Hokai Rangi policy that is supposed to deliver great outcomes for Māori.

Rerekura said the kind of treatment he alleges does not change prisoners or make them better people.

"I don't believe anybody is going to have a better chance, or better direction in life, if a place like that is going to be doing what they are doing. Why do we have a rule that states we all have human rights? The human rights law doesn't just say it's only for the people who don't get into trouble."

The case is due to be heard next month.