20 Dec 2019

Safety upgrade for court holding cells four years after death

8:36 am on 20 December 2019

The Justice Ministry has finally made its holding cells in courts safer for suicidal detainees, four years after a man killed himself in one.

Inside Paremoremo Prison

File photo. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

The work caps off delays that have frustrated detention watchdogs, over substandard cells throughout the country that posed a significant risk to prisoner safety.

The death of detainee Dwayne Walters in a Papakura Court cell in May 2015 triggered investigations that found court cells were so defective and disrepaired they were unsafe.

The Independent Police Conduct Authority found Mr Walters' death could have been prevented if cell fixtures that posed hanging or choking risks had been removed.

"In particular, a number of ligature points were present in the cell and fixtures could be easily adapted to inflict injury," the authority said.

By March of 2016, almost all court cells had been checked for risks, and the authority said it was working with the Justice Ministry "to ensure that urgent action is being taken".

Last year, however, in the monitoring report, the authority was expressing frustration - "concerned at the prolonged period of time over which the remediation programme was to be implemented and expressed this concern to the Ministry at regular meetings".

The Justice Ministry's manager in charge Fraser Gibbs said he did not hear these concerns, though they were in the official report.

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Photo: RNZ

"They may have done but they didn't do to me directly," he said.

It has taken till this year and cost $25m to make 386 court cells and 107 court interview rooms, at more than 50 courthouses, safer by modifying seats, grills, light fittings, doors, ceiling and wall and floor linings, installing privacy screens and replacing cell toilets.

A $20m contract to do the bulk of the work was not signed until the 2018/2019 financial year according to the Ministry's annual review.

There is no record of any contract for cell safety work exceeding $1m being signed in the previous four financial years.

The ministry had already begun cell upgrades before the 2015 suicide, though that event spurred it on, Gibbs said. However, it was a big job checking every cell and staggering upgrades so courts could keep functioning.

"We had to rejig other property projects in order to ensure we could fund this and do it as quickly as we could.

"Then we had to work on design of the cells and agree on componentry to reduce ligature points."

Cells that had not been upgraded were still used through this time.

"We had a protocol in place with police for additional supervision over that period. If need be they had additional staff.

"Any person deemed to be at risk was monitored."

However, these risks were identified in a 2017-18 report by groups that monitor detention facilities, including the IPCA and Ombudsman: "Ligature points remain; there is sometimes inadequate monitoring; exchange of information between Police and Corrections (for example about risk of self-harm) is poor or non-existent."

The Office of the Ombudsman in a statement said it welcomed the removal of ligature points in court cells, "as an important way to help prevent self-harm".

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: online chat (3pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-11pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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