16 Jun 2012

Not enough money to replace jail grilles, inquest told

5:40 am on 16 June 2012

A prison manager says he did not have enough money to replace ceiling grilles that inmates hanged themselves from, despite a coroner's urgings.

An inquest has been looking into the death of Zac Tangohau, 20, of Nelson, at Christchurch Men's Prison in 2010, where he was locked up on remand.

It was not until his death that the Department of Corrections finally removed the grilles from prison cells in remand wings throughout New Zealand.

In 2002, Coroner Richard McElrea pushed for their removal back after a man hanged himself from a grille in another prison.

Christchurch Men's Prison manager John Roper told Coroner Richard Devonport on Friday there had not been enough money to replace them.

"I guess the thinking around not replacing them at that time was, 'So if we replaced the grilles, what do we replace next'. There's a number of ways that a prisoner can take his own life by hanging without using something at a high level."

Mr Roper said all of the grilles have now been removed from the remand wing.

On Thursday, the inquest heard that prison guards were not told about Mr Tangohau's history of self-harm and suicide attempts and Mr Devonport said they should have been alerted.

John Roper acknowledged that mistakes were made, but said his guards would still have had to rely heavily on the prisoner's overall demeanour in assessing the suicide risk.

Mr Roper ended his evidence by giving his condolences to Zac Tangohau's family, many of whom began to cry.

Outside the hearing, Ben Hita said he hoped his grandson's death wouldn't be in vain.

"A lot of changes have taken place in the last 12 months. It's taken Zac maybe to open a few eyes and a few ears and allow some of the processes that had not happened for the last 10 years - they have now started to happen.

"But when you look at the systems of government, I do know that it is a very slow and hard process."

The Coroner will release his findings within the next few weeks.