Depressed and suicidal prisoners in New Zealand are placed in so-called 'at risk' cells where they are deprived of sleep and subjected to humiliating searches

Kim Dotcom recently spent a month on remand in Mt Eden prison after the police agreed to act on behalf of US authorities. The police took away his cars and froze his bank accounts. In prison, Corrections took away his blankets and deprived him of sleep – they woke him up every two hours. Dotcom said he was treated like a convicted criminal – as if depriving convicted criminals of sleep was a legitimate practice.

Sleep deprivation cells

It’s not legitimate. Sleep deprivation was declared illegal under Article 3 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. New Zealand signed the convention in 1985. Then there’s Section 5 of the Corrections Act (2004) which requires the Department to ensure prisons are“operated in accordance with rules (and regulations) in this Act and… are based, amongst other matters, on the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.”  Rule 31 states: “All cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments shall be completely prohibited.”

The management of Corrections ignore all this – sleep deprivation is a deliberate and daily practice in New Zealand prisons. What’s worse, it’s reserved primarily for those who are least able to cope with it – prisoners who are suicidal and psychologically vulnerable. The Corrections Department even has special cells for suicidal prisoners with camera surveillance 24/7 so the prisoner can be observed at all times – including on the toilet. Anything the prisoner might use to commit suicide is taken away; they’re not allowed underwear, clothes, sheets or blankets – in case they rip them up to use as a rope. All they get to wear is a canvas tunic. It’s so tough it can’t be ripped – and it’s very uncomfortable.

Throughout the night, the lights come on automatically every 30 minutes, so staff can see if the prisoner is doing anything – other than sleeping. Euphemistically, the Department calls these ‘at risk’ cells. In reality, they’re sleep deprivation cells and Corrections has 160 of them.

The 'naked squat'

Sleep deprivation is not the only breach of UN Rule 31. Another is ‘the naked squat’. I heard about this from a prisoner who spent a weekend in these so-called ‘at risk’ cells. Immediately after being sentenced, he was taken to the receiving office at Rimutaka Prison. There he was told to strip naked in front of four officers, and crouch down so the cheeks of his bum spread apart. Two officers got down and looked up his anus – to see whether he had a cell phone, drugs or other contraband hidden up there. Then he had to stand and hold up his penis and scrotum so they could see if he was hiding anything under his genitals. Finally they looked under his armpits and into his mouth.

After this inspection, the prisoner was asked: “How are you feeling?” He replied: “A bit delicate.” That was enough to warrant a trip to the ‘at risk’ cells. Two officers escorted him, and handed him over to another set of officers – who told him to strip off once again. He protested, saying he’d just been searched five minutes ago. But it’s in the rules. All prisoners being admitted to the 'at risk' cells have to be searched. So once again, he stripped off and did ‘the naked squat’ while more officers examined every orifice.

In the morning, he was taken to the shower block – where pretty much everything he did could be observed. Once brought back to his cell, he had to do the squat again. Then he was taken to a different cell to have breakfast. He asked why? No one seemed to know. After breakfast, he was brought back and once again, the officers examined his anus and genitals. The same thing happened after lunch and after dinner. He was required to perform ‘the naked squat’ every time he came back to his cell. In the course of one weekend, he had to spread his cheeks 11 times.

Another extremely vulnerable prisoner was kept in these 'at risk' cells for three weeks. Imagine that – anxious and suicidal, nothing to do, no TV, no distractions for three weeks on end – except the lights turning on and off all night; and nothing to look forward to except the intense embarrassment of performing the 'naked squat' in front of prison officers four times a day. Don’t forget, this is all happening in a secure environment where the prisoner has no contact with the outside world – where it is simply not possible to find anything to put up your arse, except perhaps a piece of soap from the shower.  But why would you want to do that? This prisoner endured this indignity four times a day for three weeks – that’s 84 times.

Final analysis

The ideal treatment for depressed or suicidal patients would generally include emotional support, counselling and/or antidepressant medication. For such patients, getting a good night’s sleep is paramount. Treatment should focus on improving the prisoner’s state of mind.

What happened to these prisoners is an appalling abuse of power – and a breach of the Corrections Act and United Nations Conventions. Dotcom was right -- he was tortured. When this sort of abuse happens in other countries, Amnesty International is quick to point out the perpetrators. Meanwhile, the abuse of sleep-deprived prisoners in New Zealand has been going on for years. 

Roger Brooking is spokesperson for the Howard League for Penal Reform

Comments (19)

by Ian MacKay on April 24, 2012
Ian MacKay

Some people promote the myth that prisons are really hotels. They face not only loss of freedom but also degrading invasive "legal" mistreatment.

by Roger Brooking on April 24, 2012
Roger Brooking

There's nothing legal about it. Sleep deprivation is an enhanced torture technique. Corrections gets away with it because there is so little scrutiny of what happens in prisons by the media. When I gave this story to a journalist for one of the Sunday papers, she wrote back: "I hold the same view as yourself that prisoners are still people, they still have rights and they certainly should not be degraded like that.  Sadly, that is not necessarily the view of our readers and my editors know that. Therefore, I'm not sure this is something I will be able to pursue for a story - but I will certainly put it to them - you never know."

 "
by David Farrar on April 24, 2012
David Farrar

Roger - did you take any of these cases to the Ombudsmen?

by BeShakey on April 24, 2012
BeShakey

So to summarise - you object to lights being turned on so that they can regularly check that people who are at high risk of killing themselves aren't actually killing themselves.  And you object to them strip searching prisoners to ensure they aren't smuggling things into the unit so that they can kill themselves?  Normally I'd have some sympathy for the viewpoint you take, but this just seems stupid, and hyperbole like claiming that briefly turning the lights on every thirty minutes to check they are still alive is equivalent to sleep deprivation and torture doesn't help either. 

Given that the best thing that could happen for the law and order debate is a dose of calm and reasoned discussion (rather than the hyperbole characterised by SST and now you) this is a pretty unhelpful contribution.

by Jake Quinn on April 24, 2012
Jake Quinn

Roger wrote:

"she wrote back: "I hold the same view as yourself that prisoners are still people, they still have rights and they certainly should not be degraded like that.  Sadly, that is not necessarily the view of our readers and my editors know that. Therefore, I'm not sure this is something I will be able to pursue for a story - but I will certainly put it to them - you never know."

This (attitude from a Sunday paper) really disappoints me. This is really important stuff. I read this pundit article with real interest, I've not heard about such practices in the NZ prison system, and I am quite shocked.

After all, we are a country with a reputation for anti-corruption, an independent foreign policy, can't we also have a reputation for not condoning torture?

For me, the decent and humane treatment of prisoners isn't so much about the moral obligation (although there obviously is one) but it is more about share pragmatism of it. All but the worst offenders will be released at some point, is it really sensible to be making them crazier, more angry and dangerous? (I know how cranky I get after a bad nights sleep, imagine months or years of that - I'd be a risk to the community!)

Isn't part of the prison 'experience' about rehabilitation, or have we completely abandoned the notion?

Thanks for writing this important piece Roger, I hope you have more luck with the MSM in the future.  

by Roger Brooking on April 24, 2012
Roger Brooking

David, 

The Ombudsman is aware of the issue and says prisoners endure this treatment for months...! This rather bland comment from the Ombudsman is on page 14 of this report posted by the Human Rights Committee.http://www.hrc.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Opcat-2011_final_web.pdf 

At risk regimes

"Concerns were also identified with the management of prisoners with mental health issues in at risk units. The Inspectors spoke with a number of prisoners who had been detained in at risk units for several months, often in strip conditions, and with limited opportunities to interact with others. Prisoners in at risk units may be locked down for as many as 22 hours a day. This is because the units are focused on custody rather than treatment. In comparison, the same prisoner while in hospital care is usually unlocked for most of the day and has the opportunity to interact with others. This is because the hospital’s management of the prisoner is treatment-focused, with custodial considerations being secondary. At risk regimes will be a primary focus for the Inspectors during 2011/12."

by BeShakey on April 24, 2012
BeShakey

So the real issue seems to be the timeframe.  At Risk units should be (and based on the evidence here, are) used for prisoners who are at risk of immediate harm.  In this context intensive monitoring makes sense.  But it should also be the case that either the risk is relatively transitory (e.g. new prisoners, or prisoners who have received traumatic news [also worth noting, lest someone thinks 30 minute checks are excessive for such examples, that the intensity of the monitoring varies depending on the level of risk]) or a plan for properly managing the risk (e.g. through some kind of treatment) is put in place.  Either way extended time under intensive monitoring in an at risk unit would be inappropriate, whereas shorter periods may be fine.

I don't personally know, and it isn't stated here, what number/proportion of prisoners are in at risk units, and (importantly), what regimes they are under.  Its important that any debate isn't clouded by only discussing the longest stays and the 'worst' conditions, without any indication of the overlap between the two.

by kerry weston on April 24, 2012
kerry weston

This is appalling. All about Corrections saving their own butts in case a suicide is successful - and inflicting intense humiliation, as if that will "shock" or shame a person into not being suicidal anymore. What's that dreadful phrase? Collateral damage. Absolutely no recognition from the powers -that- be that people with poor literacy & numeracy, mental health issues, dysfunctional family/social backgrounds AND a criminal record, need the first 3 issues meaningfully addressed if they are to overcome the criminality. Humiliation will not achieve this.  Jesus, this is so basic.

I guess the prisoners in the know just pretend they are "choice, bro, couldn't be better." 

by Roger Brooking on April 24, 2012
Roger Brooking

BeShakey wrote: "shorter periods may be fine."

Have you tried going without sleep for a week - when you already feel depressed or suicidal? I can assure there's nothing fine about it. The prisoners mostly come out in a worse state than they went in.

by Flat Eric on April 26, 2012
Flat Eric

People in prisons have it tough.  Meh.

by David Beatson on April 26, 2012
David Beatson

No wonder New Zealand governments have been so reluctant to point the finger at the treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan. This sounds so similar that it's almost incredible it didn't make it in the Sunday papers. It's outrageous.

by BeShakey on April 26, 2012
BeShakey

Roger - you've pointed out that suicidal prisoners may be checked on every 30 minutes to make sure they haven't actually committed suicide.  Thats rather different to actively (or even inadvertantly) preventing them from sleep for a week.  Hyperbole isn't very helpful when trying to have an intelligent debate about how to deal with our incredibly large prison population.

by Roger Brooking on April 27, 2012
Roger Brooking

BeShakey. You seem to be missing a few points.

1) Its virtually impossible to commit suicide in a cell where there is nothing to swallow, nothing you can use to make a rope and nothing to cut yourself with - especially after you've been strip searched four times a day. It's simply not necessary to repeatedly wake these prisoners up. They can't do anything.

2) Sleep is a great healer. If you constantly wake up someone who is depressed or suicidal, you simply make them worse. The prisoner does not benefit from this.

3) The only 'benefit' is to the Corrections Department which avoids the embarrassment of someone dying in prison because of the woefully inadequate  mental health treatment which is available to prisoners.

4) Its not just a week. Some prisoners endure this for months on end. 

by BeShakey on April 27, 2012
BeShakey

1) Antonie Dixon suggests otherwise.  I'm not sure if you have seen some of the things that have been found in cells or through strip searches in these units, but the suggestion that prisoners are unable to kill themselves in secure units is simply naive.

2) I haven't disagreed with you.  I've simply suggested this is, at best misleading.  You haven't said anything to show that there is a deliberate attempt to stop people from sleeping.  Or even that, in practice, people are stopped from sleeping (I'm sure there are examples of people being unable to sleep but your claim is that this is systematic and you haven't produced anything that could reasonably support this). 

3) Surely not killing yourself is of benefit to the prisoner? Although I certainly agree that mental health services for prisoners (and others) could and should be much better.

4) I simply used a week because that was the timeframe you gave in the post I was responding to. 

by Roger Brooking on April 27, 2012
Roger Brooking

Antonie Dixon's death does not help your case. He's a classic example of a prisoner who did not get the mental health treatment he needed. He was paranoid but was not taking medication. A psychiatrist visited Dixon at 5pm on the day he died and found "he's not a well man but he's in good care". Several hours later Dixon was dead. His lawyer, Barry Hart said Dixon  should have been put in a psychiatric unit, not a prison cell

The reports say he died of self-inflicted injuries. What they don't say is that the injuries were caused by repeatedly running from one side of his cell headfirst into the  wall on the other side. Eventually he cracked his head open - while Corrections staff stood by and laughed.

by Roger Brooking on April 27, 2012
Roger Brooking

Antonie Dixon's death does not help your case. He's a classic example of a prisoner who did not get the mental health treatment he needed. He was paranoid but was not taking medication. A psychiatrist visited Dixon at 5pm on the day he died and found "he's not a well man but he's in good care". Several hours later Dixon was dead. His lawyer, Barry Hart said Dixon  should have been put in a psychiatric unit, not a prison cell

The reports say he died of self-inflicted injuries. What they don't say is that the injuries were caused by repeatedly running from one side of his cell headfirst into the  wall on the other side. Eventually he cracked his head open - while Corrections staff stood by and laughed.

by Roger Brooking on April 27, 2012
Roger Brooking

Antonie Dixon's death does not help your case. He's a classic example of a prisoner who did not get the mental health treatment he needed. He was paranoid but was not taking medication. A psychiatrist visited Dixon at 5pm on the day he died and found "he's not a well man but he's in good care". Several hours later Dixon was dead. His lawyer, Barry Hart said Dixon  should have been put in a psychiatric unit, not a prison cell

The reports say he died of self-inflicted injuries. What they don't say is that the injuries were caused by repeatedly running from one side of his cell headfirst into the  wall on the other side. Eventually he cracked his head open - while Corrections staff stood by and laughed.

by on May 11, 2012
Anonymous

PUBLIC MEETINGS ON THE CONDITIONS AND TREATMENT OF PEOPLE IN DETENTION

 

The Human Rights Commission , Ombudsmen, Children’s Commissioner, Independent Police Conduct Authority, and Inspector of Service Penal Establishments invite members of civil society to meet with them to discuss their work in monitoring places of detention and to seek your views on the conditions and treatment of people in detention.

 

Dates and venues are as follows:

Christchurch Wednesday 16 May 12.00-1.30 pm, Kilmore Street Training Room, Westpac Business Hub, 55 Jack Hinton Drive, Addington,

 

and

 

Auckland Tuesday 29 May 11.00am-12.20pm, Human Rights Commission, Level 3, Zurich House, 21 Queen St (QEII Square), Auckland Central     

 

Please RSVP to jessican@hrc.co.nz, or 0800 496 877.

 

Further information is available at: http://www.hrc.co.nz/human-rights-environment/monitoring-places-of-detention

 

by danniel on September 05, 2013
danniel

We would all like to believe that we've evolved far enough to not read this kind of news anymore. I guess we'll never be able to go beyond our wild nature, no matter how evolved we are. I know a lot of stories about prisoners, one of my friends is a prisoner, he's on a Januvia treatment. It's a real tormentor for him to be there and to be sick as well.

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