23 Oct 2019

Lawyer wins more payouts for ex-inmates - 15 years on

6:25 pm on 23 October 2019

The first six of 72 prisoners unlawfully held in solitary confinement 20 years ago will finally be paid out by the government.

Tony Ellis

Human rights lawyer Dr Tony Ellis says it's surprising it is taking such a long time to settle a compensation case for former prisoners held in solitary confinement at Auckland Prison. Photo: RNZ / Murielle Baker

Human rights lawyer Dr Tony Ellis had previously won compensation for five prisoners held in a Behavioural Management Regime (BMR) at Auckland Prison.

Since then, 72 others have come forward and a claim was lodged in the High Court in 2004.

It has been Dr Ellis's longest running case, and one he is proud to have seen through.

"I don't suppose many people would have bothered to keep on going for 15 years. But, you just have to do this because there was a significant injustice."

The first six have been offered $87,500 to be shared among all of them.

Assuming similar offers are made for the remaining 66, a final payout would exceed $1 million.

The BMR was set up at Auckland Prison in 1998 to deal with "difficult" prisoners.

"Some of the prisoners challenged it, the Ombudsman had a look at it and then I got told of it. We brought a claim in the High Court in respect of five prisoners... we won that and the prisoners got compensation after it had worked its way up to the Supreme Court," Dr Ellis said.

Another 72 made a claim which was lodged in the High Court in 2004.

"You would have thought we'd have settled it by now, given that they were in exactly the same programme as the others but it proved very difficult."

The inmates were subjected to harsh treatment which included not being allowed out for their one hour of exercise, unlawful strip searches and being made to clean their toilets with their own toothbrush.

Prisoners were kept like this for up to two years.

Dr Ellis said the finer details were still being worked out and it could be some time before the money ended up with his clients.

"They're keen to know exactly why they've got it and how so I'm still waiting [for that]. There's excitement and pleasure but still wanting to know the full details which I can't give them because I haven't got the response formally from Corrections as to the mathematics and how they arrived at this number."

He hoped all 72 would have their money by this time next year, however it could take longer.

"[Their] prior victims might make a claim to the money in which case it might go for another few years while we take it to the UN to complain about the Prisoners and Victims Claims Act."

The Prisoners and Victims Claims Act came into effect in 2005, and allowed victims of a prisoner receiving compensation to make a claim to their money.

And while resolution is in sight for these claimants, others may be yet to come forward.

Dr Ellis, who has not yet been paid any money for his 15-year legal battle, expected more would come to him.

"Nobody else will do it, I'm going to have to do it ... you acquire all this knowledge about it and I would think the next lot - if there is a next lot - would be much simpler."

A former inmate and prison reform advocate Paul Wood said the fact that the claimants were prisoners did not detract from the fact they were offended against.

"The rule of law has to apply consistently for everyone."

He said Dr Ellis had done a fantastic job.

"Clearly he is someone who's following his calling and is prepared to persevere and carry on for something he believes is the right thing."

A Corrections spokesperson said staff at the time acted in good faith as they faced serious challenges in managing the maximum security prisoners.

"The BMR was implemented at Auckland Prison in 1998 following a riot at the prison. It reflected some international practices happening at the time and deprived prisoners of privileges, which could then be recovered through their demonstration of improved behaviour. It involved prisoners whose conduct was too dangerous or disruptive to be safely managed in the general prison population.

"We are currently working to settle the claims by people who were subject to the BMR.

"Victims of the people who are awarded settlement in relation to BMR are able to make a claim against the compensation. Settlements are paid into the Victims' Special Claims Trust account, with the Victims' Special Claims Tribunal deciding whether a victim is entitled to any of the money."

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