26 Mar 2019

Searches of women prisoners 'intrusive and potentially traumatising'

6:28 pm on 26 March 2019

The Department of Corrections has apologised after women prisoners were wrongfully given intrusive, internal searches on suspicion of concealing contraband.

A correction officer

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

So far, 15 women have each been paid $25,000 in compensation.

A draft report by the Independent Corrections Inspectorate found internal searches were common at Auckland women's prison for 10 years between 2006 and 2016.

Department of Corrections national commissioner Rachel Leota said staff were trying to contact another 14 former prisoners.

"I deeply regret that this practise was ever able to occur, and over such a long period of time. I apologise unreservedly for the searches that were carried out, and for any distress that this has caused to these women.

"These searches were intrusive and potentially traumatising for these women. While we can't undo the distress they may have suffered at the time or subsequently, it's critical that we try to put things right."

The report found no contraband was found during searches which were not allowed under the Corrections Act.

Searches were inconsistent with prison policies at the Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility, although there was no evidence improper searches were systemic.

Another former prisoner who made a complaint about a search was given compensation and an apology in 2017.

"We are actively working to contact a further 14 women.

"These women have previously spent time in prison and are now in the community, and we are working to obtain their current contact information. In addition, we are aware that another woman has passed away since she was in prison, and contact will be made with her family."

The department said the inspectorate report identified that 34 women had been subject to suspected or confirmed internal searches.

Records reviewed during the investigation were incomplete and of a poor standard, but they indicated that 38 of the total 42 suspected or confirmed searches that took place were completed by two female doctors.

Three searches were carried out by a male doctor and one was carried out by a departmental nurse.

Corrections suspended two medical officers who carried out internal searches, and searches were referred to the police and the Medical Council.

Ms Leota said other matters remained outstanding, including potential employment action and legal proceedings taken against the department by one of the doctors whose contract was terminated.

The inspectorate did not find any evidence of malicious intention on the part of staff or the contracted doctors.

A final report will be made public.