The use of seclusion and solitary confinement among police, prisons and healthcare providers has sparked calls for urgent reform after a new United Nations-funded investigation.
The parents of Ashley Peacock, kept in a seclusion unit for six years at Tawhirimatea mental health unit at Porirua, have welcomed the report, saying it makes them feel vindicated.
The UN-funded report, which was ordered by New Zealand’s Human Rights Commission, cites the use of mechanical restraints, cardboard bedpans and poorly monitored suicide-risk holding rooms as needing attention.
Chief Human Rights Commissioner David Rutherford said Oxford University solitary confinement expert Sharon Shalev’s report makes for “sobering reading”, and its findings compel reform.
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The report advises restraint beds and restraint chairs be abolished entirely.
It finds mechanical restraints abolished in some other countries are still used here, where prisoners are segregated at worryingly high levels.
Criminal justice and healthcare agencies have pledged to take the report seriously.
Neil Beales, Corrections chief custodial officer, said restraint beds were limited to four prisons, were used rarely, and only when prisoners’ lives were at risk.
He said Corrections was investing more in mental healthcare, and agreed some older jail facilities could be improved.
In the health sector, the report says seclusion rates are too high, some frontline staff have not embraced the “necessary change of mindset”, and tensions exist over eliminating seclusion.
John Crawshaw, director of mental health, said the Ministry of Health had already moved to reduce and eventually eliminate seclusion. It should be used only when an imminent risk of danger existed, and no safe and effective alternative was possible.
David and Marlena Peacock, who have long argued that their son’s seclusion should not be a long-term solution, said of the report: “The one thing we can say for sure is we feel we’ve been vindicated. We’ve battled for so long.”
The Shalev report finds women prison inmates are more likely than men to be segregated, and ethnic minorities are over-represented in solitary confinement and restraint cases.
In one example, some Christchurch Women’s Prison (CWP) inmates were offered no phone calls, but men in three other jails had one five-minute call daily.
Beales said he spoke to the CWP director on Wednesday, and “would be surprised if that is common practice”.
The report said some punishment areas in “at-risk units” were inadequately supervised, so self-harming inmates might not be found until it was too late.
Beales said that theory did not reflect Corrections’ safety record.
The report calls for better record-keeping on restraint use, and recommends all cells or rooms be clean, safe and well-ventilated.
It recommends custodians meet exercise, food and drinking water needs, ensure cells have means for attracting staff attention, and that facilities unfit for purpose be scrapped.
Human rights lawyer Tony Ellis was “not in the least bit confident” the advice would be implemented.
“How many reports do we need before the Government pulls its finger out and actually respects the human rights of those people who are detained and cannot speak up for themselves?”
The report follows a visit by a UN arbitrary detention working group, and a UN torture prevention report.
Amnesty International’s Sarah Agnew called it “a step in the right direction”. “We do recognise there are challenges to operating detention facilities, but that is never an excuse to deprive people of their basic human rights.”
The report finds seclusion and restraints are not always used as emergency last resorts for the shortest time possible.
Addressing police, it says Wellington station’s windowless, poorly ventilated underground custody unit is inappropriate.
Superintendent Chris Scahill said police planned to improve the unit, and were working nationwide with other agencies for better mental health support so detainees got the right treatment.
He agreed police cells were the wrong place to hold people suffering mental distress.
Labour health spokesman David Clark said: “I hope the report will give something concrete for service providers to work with. When the problems outlined are so stark, it is hard to ignore.”
He agreed with phasing out restraint chairs and restraint beds, but “extreme situations” might require them, especially to protect staff safety.
Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft said the report was a wakeup call and changes were needed if a “world-leading youth justice and care and protection system” was wanted.
“This isn’t some soft, sugary approach to those in custody.”
He said the Youth Court should not remand young people into police cells after their first court appearance.
* Stopping the use of restraint chairs and restraint beds.
* Making sure that rooms and cells are of reasonable size, clean, safe, well-ventilated, well-lit and temperature controlled and basic requirements around access to fresh air and exercise, food and drinking water are always met.
* Decommissioning facilities unfit for purpose.
* Ensuring all cells and rooms have a means for attracting staff attention.
* Keeping thorough records and data, indicating start and end times of seclusion and restraint periods and any efforts at less restrictive methods.
* Frequently analysing data for trends in ages, ethnicities and gender.