Emily Wilson has been a nurse for 30 years. In 2009 she took a job at a prison – in the health unit at Otago Corrections Facility (OCF). On her first day at work, Wilson couldn’t believe her ears. “I’ve never heard the word fuck so many times”, she said. “The nurses had three descriptions for prisoners – they were either ‘fucking cunts’, ‘fucking bastards’, or ‘dirty little fuckers’.” Wilson described a litany of unethical and disrespectful behaviour by certain nurses at the OCF that went on in the two years she was there.
The green chit strategy
According to Nurse Wilson, some nurses at OCF went out of their way to make life difficult for prisoners. One strategy involved green chits. When prisoners want to see a doctor, they have to fill in a green form – known as a chit. They describe their health problem on the chit and place it in a box. Each morning officers give the chits to the nurse on duty – bearing in mind, nurses are the gatekeepers to the doctor. If the nurse on duty didn’t like a particular prisoner, she would rip up his chit. He wouldn’t get to see the doctor – no matter how serious his health problem was.
Sometimes this nearly had fatal consequences. Wilson described one prisoner at OCF who got really sick and had acute stomach pain. He filled in the chits four days in a row. The nurses ignored him and told him to ‘toughen up’. His condition deteriorated to the point that eventually the prison officers became concerned. Because the nurses wouldn’t help, the officers carried the prisoner over to the health centre in a golf cart. That got the prison doctor’s attention; he called 111 immediately and the man had to be taken to hospital where he was found to have a burst appendix and septicaemia (blood poisoning). He survived – but only just – and only because untrained prison officers realised it was a life threatening situation. If it had been left up to the nurses, he would have died.
Denial of medication strategy
Another strategy used to inflict pain on prisoners is to deny them access to prescribed pain medication. This strategy was used with fatal consequences on Richard Barriball who committed suicide in Otago prison in 2010. Barriball had required three operations on his arm before being admitted to prison and was prescribed opiate pain medication (Tramadol) by hospital specialists. According to Wilson, nurses at OCF don’t approve of Tramadol and tried to prevent the prison doctor from prescribing it. The coroner was told by the health centre manager that Tramadol had been prescribed – but that prison management does not allow prisoners to have heavy pain medication after they’re locked down for the evening (from about 4.30pm).
Barriball was also described by family members as psychologically vulnerable. He left a suicide note in capital letters that said: “PAIN” – and in his report into Barriball’s death, the coroner wrote: “The causes of the death and the circumstances of the death of Richard Barriball have shown suboptimal care by OCF… (including) the failure of OCF to provide delivery of prescribed pain relief at a time deemed most appropriate by clinicians”.
Suspended over Raro
Nurse Wilson was appalled at the way Barriball was treated. On one occasion when she showed compassion to another prisoner, they used the incident to suspend her. Wilson had only been at the prison a few months when an alcoholic man was brought in. He was suffering from dehydration and withdrawal symptoms and was so disoriented, he was placed in the at risk unit to detox. The prisoner was so confused, he started drinking out of the toilet. Wilson spoke with the two officers on duty and the three of them decided to get him some clean drinking water. One of the officers washed out a milk container and filled it with water and then Wilson poured half a sachet of Raro into it.
They went back to the prisoner, gave him some valium (used to assist alcoholics detox) with the Raro flavoured water and he ‘skulled it’. A few days later, Wilson was called into the health manager’s office and told to pack her things immediately. She was suspended for giving the prisoner Raro (which was not an approved item for prisoners) and was off work on full pay for the next 18 weeks. The Department conducted an extensive investigation into this apparent breach of policy which ran to 238 pages. It concluded that Wilson had breached section 141 of the Corrections Act 2004 which says “every person commits an offence who… delivers anything, or causes it to be delivered, to any prisoner inside a prison”. Corrections management twisted this regulation to include Raro flavoured water given to assist a dehydrated prisoner to stop him drinking out of the toilet.
A couple of days after Wilson was suspended, the prisoner had to be taken to hospital – suffering from severe dehydration. It seems Corrections aren’t keen on showing kindness to inmates. They prefer to wait till it’s an emergency and then call an ambulance (at taxpayer’s expense), rather than break the Raro rules.