Time for PM to step in over minister's handling of prison concerns

3:52 pm on 10 September 2020

By Meg de Ronde*

Opinion - "Yes, we've done wrong. We deserve to be there. But we're still humans." This was Joanne* a recent detainee commenting to RNZ investigative journalist Guyon Espiner on her experience in Auckland women's prison. It's what drives us at Amnesty International too, writes Meg de Ronde.

Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility in Wiri

Auckland Region Women's Correctional Facility in Wiri. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

All people have the same basic rights and even those people who lose their liberty for a period in prison do not lose their right to health, to human contact and to be treated with dignity. As a community, we are better served by people coming out of our correctional facilities healthy, and more connected to society than when they went in.

If you treat people inhumanely you will exacerbate pain, disconnection, and risk their ability to reintegrate into the community.

We have had growing concerns about two things in our New Zealand prisons for some time now. The first concern is in relation to reports we were hearing about the treatment of women at Auckland Region Women's Correctional Facility (ARWCF) and problems with the culture there. This is where the vast majority of our women prisoners are held.

The second is the use of long - and potentially illegal - lockdown hours in prison cells across the country, both before and during the Covid-19 national lockdown.

Kelvin Davis speaks at a Marae in Point Chevalier on July 31, 2020

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Trying to find out what was happening in our prisons however - what Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis knew and what Corrections was doing - has thrown up a whole new round of concerns.

It has also left us convinced that Corrections' practice - and what information the minister is currently getting - needs urgent, further scrutiny. We are again asking Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to intervene and explain why her minister is unable to be transparent about what is going on in his department.

Lies, damn lies and CCTV

I don't say this lightly but did the Kelvin Davis lie to us? Or did his staff lie to him?

Based on information released under the Official Information Act to RNZ we have learned that some of the data we asked for from the minister that he told us did not exist, did.

We were asking for any data - even a sample - of how long people in prison were being locked up in their cells for during the Covid-19 alert levels 3 and 4.

The minister assured us he was happy with what Corrections was doing and said they could not give us any data because neither he nor Corrections had it.

We were further assured that if people were worried, there were complaints processes available to them.

What we now know is not only did Corrections have some of this data, but they were concerned that journalists and groups like ours were asking because some of the data validated our concerns.

On 22 April, an email was sent to key leaders within Corrections, including National Commissioner Rachel Leota, included a table breaking down each prison's lock-up periods longer than 22 hours since alert level 4.

Despite this, we received a letter from Minister Davis on 28 May that said that Corrections did not centrally collate this information and "for this reason, neither Corrections nor my office holds the information you have requested, and your request is not one that I can fulfil at this time". This was a lie so either he knew it - or his officials lied to him.

Based on what we know now, I tend to think the minister is willingly leaving himself out of the information chain. Here we are again, requesting a copy of the report that the minister himself ordered into lockdown hours in his prisons as a result of us and others asking questions.

The response we got? The minister never received a copy. Just a briefing. He is unable to release a copy of the report into whether his prisons were breaking domestic and international law because he never got a copy himself.

"In reviewing your request I have found that the information you have requested (the national review) has not been provided to the minister's office and therefore cannot be provided to you under the OIA."

Despite not reading the report, Davis told us was he was assured that nationally, 96 percent of prisoners had their entitlements in the one-week period that they've sampled.

If you look at the mid-North Island prisons that figure shows 10 percent of people in prisons were not getting their minimum entitlements.

The minister's officials have claimed that they have supporting documentation for the 4 percent of people who did not get let out of their cells enough.

Let's see evidence

Amnesty International NZ executive director Meg de Ronde.

Meg de Ronde. Photo: Supplied / Amnesty International NZ

We've asked to see the supporting evidence as we no longer are taking any assurances at face value. And neither should the minister.

And if you look at a prison like ARWCF they had to go back and review CCTV footage to work out what was going on with their lockdown hours.

They hadn't kept records properly and Corrections' leadership only realised after RNZ made enquiries in April, that some women at ARWCF hadn't received their minimum time out of their cells.

An email from regional commissioner Lynette Cave on 30 April noted: "... this practice cannot continue as we can't leave wāhine in cells for over 24 hours".

They have also made the claim that it is because the women declined but there is no supporting evidence because records were not kept.

It is time for politicians to start listening and paying attention to what is occurring in our prison system. We have already asked once back in May, for the prime minister to step in and it is now clear that her minister needs to be held accountable. 'Be kind' should apply to everyone, especially people in a vulnerable position locked up by the state.

*Meg de Ronde is Amnesty International NZ's executive director.

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