18 Apr 2024

'Treated like an animal': Prisoners kept inside 24 hours some days

1:40 pm on 18 April 2024
Inside Paremoremo's new prison wing

Inside Paremoremo's new prison wing Photo: RNZ / Jessie Chiang

A former prisoner has likened being denied a daily hour outside to being treated like an animal.

The Office of the Inspectorate said minimum entitlements were a right, not a privilege, after it was found that 190 prisoners were only allowed outside every second day.

Lionel Rusia was released from prison in January after being sentenced to 19 months for drug supply. He spent his time in various Auckland prisons.

Rusia said there were several times when he was also not allowed to leave his cell. The 44-year-old described them as his worst moments in prison.

"I understand that we are being punished for the crimes we committed, and I accept that. What I don't accept is that we get treated like animals when we are already inside, paying the price for our poor choices."

At other times the one hour outside was reduced to 30 or 15 minutes, he said.

"Imagine being allowed out of your room only one hour per day. That would be the most important hour of your day, so the we were all waiting for it.

"To wake up in the morning and hear that you won't be able to go outside at all, it creates frustration, some people just go crazy."

Rusia said he would hear people shouting and banging on the walls and doors.

At times the reduced time outside was because of fights between inmates, other times they were told it was because of staff shortages, he said.

"You have a mix of people in there who have already been sentenced and a bunch still waiting for it. So, sometimes, for safety, officers will keep people inside their cells for 24 hours."

The lack of time outside was worse for younger inmates, the first-time prisoner said.

"I'm 44 years old and I can handle my thoughts; I knew I was in prison and that there was nothing I could do about it, so on days I couldn't get out at all, I focused my energy on exercising.

"But for some prisoners, mostly the young ones, you could see the anxiety building up, the frustration."

Corrections deputy commissioner Neil Beales said the units involved housed some of the most difficult and dangerous prisoners and the situation happened when they were significantly under-staffed.

But Beales said Corrections was committed to ensuring minimum entitlements were met and people's rights were upheld.

"We will continue our work to be better prepared for managing exceptional challenges in the future."

But Beales said these entitlements could be denied to people in prison in certain circumstances.

"Section 69(2) of the Corrections Act 2004 states that an individual's minimum entitlements may be denied if there is an emergency in the prison, the security of the prison is threatened or if the health or safety of any person is threatened.

"For example in past years, in situations where a significant number of prisoners were being managed in quarantine because they had tested positive for Covid-19, or had been in close contact with someone with Covid-19, it was very difficult to provide unlock time without creating an opportunity for the virus to spread to staff or other prisoners, and so it was not possible to safely facilitate this for every prisoner every day."

Beales said Corrections had also faced staffing issues - which had impacted its abilities to provide minimum entitlements on occasion. But recently, Corrections has seen a "strong increase" in the numbers of job applications received.

"As at 18 March 2024, we had received 26,794 applications since 1 October 2022, with 1356 recruited into Corrections Officer roles."

Beales said Corrections took its responsibilities for prisoners seriously. It acknowledged the report and accepted the recommendations."

'Degrading and soul-destroying'

People Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA) spokesperson Emmy Rākete said they had been advocating for the end of solitary confinement for years.

"The Inspectorate was unusually frank here in acknowledging that prisoners in Paremoremo were subjected to solitary confinement, something that PAPA has criticised Corrections for doing for years."

She said solitary confinement was degrading, soul-destroying torture.

"I've seen firsthand the harm it does to people and Corrections deliberately opted to inflict this torture on more than a hundred people for months.

"This is not just an unfortunate situation, but a deliberate decision by prison bureaucrats to break the law for an extended period."