2 Jun 2021

Corrections' lack of action 'very disappointing' - Chief Ombudsman

From Checkpoint, 5:08 pm on 2 June 2021

Corrections is being accused of inertia and moving at a glacial pace when it comes to improving "barren and undignified" jail conditions and the treatment of inmates.

The Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier says it is undermining public confidence in the prison system.

Unannounced follow-up inspections of Christchurch Men's Prison and Whanganui Prison in 2020 show the jails have failed to make most of the improvements recommended during earlier inspections.

Among the concerns are unnecessary and disproportionate use of force, unapproved restraint techniques, the use of so-called dry cells with no toilets or running water, generally sub-standard cells, evening meals at 3.30pm, the treatment of a transgender inmate and inadequate access to release programmes, to name a few.

"You'll understand how disappointing it is when I make recommendations," Boshier told Checkpoint.

Of the 27 recommendations to Christchurch Prison, Judge Boshier has repeated 26. Of the 14 recommendations at Whanganui Prison, he has repeated 13.

"You'll understand my frustration that unlike some other agencies - in fact most others - where I make recommendations, they're implemented. It doesn't happen in that way with Corrections, it's very disappointing," he said.

Boshier said he is concerned that a government department agrees to make change but does not appear to take any action.

"That seems to indicate to me an inertia… mostly when something needs to be done for the good most agencies find they can do it.

"Corrections knows, and so does the public, my job as designated by Parliament is to apply international minimum standards to see whether or not our individual prisons are up to scratch.

"We've had a lot to say in the past about double-bunking… what we do is we report on what we see and measure those with standards.

"So it's not a matter of my attitude to the way prisons should be run, it's a matter of what does the law and the convention say, and is Corrections complying.

"Last August we said that the top prison at Waikeria was substandard and unacceptable. You do have to therefore wonder why, when no action was taken on those recommendations, the consequence was a riot."

 Boshier said it is a case of the Ombudsman retaining credibility as an office that should be taken seriously, and he is not sure Corrections is showing such respect for that office.

"When you get recommendations not taken up, I'm bound to ask why and what the problem is.

"It seems that I only get change when we do release a report and criticise. That's why in the systemic investigation I want to do, I'd like to help Corrections unpick whether they have a culture and a leadership system, which might benefit from some change.

"I'm trying to be measured about this and say that for the most part, when I recommend to an agency, whether it's a city council or a crown agency, for the most part the agency along the way sees what we're doing and why, and sees the benefit in it.

"Corrections agreed with the recommendations that I was making. It isn't functional for things then not to happen."

Boshier told Checkpoint one example of excessive force in Christchurch involved a prisoner who had damaged property.

"[He] had turned around and was walking away, so had his back to the prison officers."

In video footage of the incident, Boshier said he saw what he would describe as a high-flying tackle by five prison officers from behind.

"We felt on looking at it that the force used was not proportionate to what needed to be done.

"My feeling was that if they were trying to emulate, say, what happened on the rugby field, they would all get a red card.

"It wasn't acceptable, it was disproportionate.

"Recently I've been concerned about the handcuffing of pregnant female prisoners in Auckland, and the use of pepper spray, and then there was the tie-down bed that we criticised in one of the prisons. It seems not a proportionate response to what's required on many occasions.

"It's really important that we get this right. The prisons have training on proportionate response, and on what's required on a situation."

In response to Corrections' media statement, Judge Boshier acknowledged many prisoners need restraining.

"There is force that needs to be used at times, of course. What I say is it needs to be proportionate. What we saw was not."

Corrections' response to the Chief Ombudsman's report

In a statement, Corrections said it acknowledged the Ombudsman’s follow-up inspections of Whanganui and Christchurch Men’s prisons under the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT).

“The inspections are welcomed. Independent oversight helps to ensure that people in prison are treated in a way that reflects their needs and supports them to make changes to their lives and stop committing crime,” Corrections National Commissioner Rachel Leota said in the statement, which can be read in full here.

“However, the nature of the reports does not recognise the hugely challenging work that prison staff do every day to keep people in prison safe and change their lives, and the progress that we have made.

“We have 4,100 custodial staff who show up to work in prisons every day to keep New Zealanders safe and help the people we manage change their lives. They work in some of the most difficult and challenging environments in New Zealand, with complex people. Prisons are reflective of what occurs in our communities and in recent years the environment in which Corrections operates has changed significantly.

“Whilst the prison population has reduced significantly since 2018, there is a growing number of people in prison with a history of extensive methamphetamine which is associated with a significant and lasting impact on mental and emotional function.

“Balancing our obligations, challenges and competing priorities against the time and resources available means we must make difficult choices about where to focus our efforts."