15 Jun 2018

Details of new Waikeria mental health facility revealed

12:35 pm on 15 June 2018

The country's first-ever mental health prison won't be double-bunked, will have much smaller wing sizes than standard prisons and have one specialised staff member for every two prisoners.

Waikeria prison

Waikeria prison Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Details of the new 100-bed mental health facility to be built at Waikeria prison shown to RNZ reveal it will be split into a series of units.

It will have an Intervention and Support Unit, and a Sub-Acute Mental Health Unit which receives patients as their wellness improves.

There will be a Close Supervision Unit for prisoners with particularly challenging behavioural issues and a Transition Unit for prisoners preparing to move back to standard prison accommodation.

The facility will support up to 50 psychological, clinical and social work staff on top of custodial staff - meaning one staff member for every two prisoners.

National's justice spokesman Mark Mitchell said it will be a challenge to find that many staff.

"There's definitely a shortage of mental health workers out there," he said.

"I mean it's tough work so you tend to have a bit of a turnover.

"They're going to be dealing with not only people with mental health issues but probably violent offenders as well with a long history of violence."

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis himself said there were major shortages of mental health workers across the country.

Mr Davis said it was clear how bad the need was for specialist mental health care.

On a recent prison visit, he said one man began stabbing himself in the groin with a pencil.

"To be thrown in prison, and then to start that self-harm, that person has a mental health issue. Another case is a guy who was cutting himself open and sticking kitchen utensils inside him.

"You can't tell me that guy shouldn't be in a mental health unit."

The country's first mental health prison will treat those inmates who would otherwise wait too long for medical help.

Mr Davis said over 60 percent of prisoners have a mental health or substance abuse disorders, and around 46 percent of people in prison had a mental health-related episode in the last 12 months. That's about 5000 people.

"This is long overdue," Mr Davis said.

"When I became minister, the thing that was blindingly obvious to me was that there is just such a huge need in the area of mental health and nobody had done anything about it, at least nothing serious," he said

"Even this isn't enough, but it is a start."

Corrections chief executive Ray Smith said the facility offered something different to anything else in New Zealand - a mix of security and treatment.

"We've seen these models overseas, a blend of Corrections staff [as well as] heavily staffed with psychiatric nurses and other nursing staff, so we can look after the people and try and get them well, but also ensure they're looked after in a secure and safe way," he said.

"That's much better than having to queue them up or try and push them into a mental health system that's trying to deal with people who aren't prisoners as well."

Private victims advocate Ruth Money said she was pleased to see action being taken to address what she saw as a huge issue.

"I welcome the news, especially the mental health part," she said.

"We're incredibly under-resourced when it comes to mental health support, so it's a really good start."

Wings at the facility are to be no larger than nine inmates, as opposed to a standard prison wing of 60, and there will be dining and programmes rooms in each wing.

The facility will also have sensory modulation rooms, easy access to relaxing courtyards and de-escalation areas.

Once the new unit is operational in 2022, it is likely that the most severely disturbed mentally ill prisoners will continue to be transferred to forensic hospitals in the community such as the Mason Clinic.

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