A Bill has just passed its first reading in the New Zealand Parliament which will enable prisoners to be charged with an offence for drinking too much water. Corrections Minister Anne Tolley said: “The Bill will make it an offence for a prisoner to ‘waterload’ prior to a drug test. This means that a prisoner can be disciplined if they are found to be attempting to dilute their urine sample by intentionally drinking large amounts of water prior to being tested.”
This is nonsense – prisoners don’t know when they’ll be tested. The drug tests are generally random so it’s virtually impossible to ‘intentionally’ drink large amounts of water prior to being tested. If a prisoner is thirsty and drinks a lot of water, and if a random drug test is done soon afterwards, this will now constitute ‘misconduct’.
Double jeopardy -‘bashful bladder’
When prisoners are made to do a drug test, there are usually two or three prison officers watching. Some people find this so off-putting they can’t pee. The inability to pee in front of others is a well-known psychological condition called paruresis – sometimes referred to as ‘bashful bladder’. The condition affects around 7% of the population. Those with mild paruresis are able to urinate in certain circumstances but incapable in others. In British prisons, paruresis is considered a valid reason for a prisoner’s inability to produce a sample and is not to be construed as an offence. However, in New Zealand, failing to supply a sample in prison is classified as ‘misconduct’ – and is automatically assumed to indicate a positive result.
If a prisoner has any misconduct offences on their file in the six months before appearing at the Parole Board, their chances of being released are substantially diminished. In prison you have to keep your nose clean (and now your bladder empty) to have any chance of release. One female prisoner I worked with developed paruresis after being sexually abused. She was charged with misconduct when she failed to produce a sample in front of three officers. She appealed to a visiting Justice of the Peace to have the ‘misconduct’ removed from her file but the process took so long she ended up serving her whole sentence.
Another case involved a young female prisoner who has been in prison for seven years without using drugs. She was doing well and had been given privileges such as a minimum security classification, living in a self-care unit within the prison and for the last two years working outside the wire on day-release. She was almost ready to be released. When asked to provide a random urine sample, she was watched by an officer for 5 hours. She couldn’t provide enough urine for the test and was deemed to have refused. She was charged with misconduct and punished. Her security classification was raised to medium-high; she lost her job; she was taken out of self care and put back into a mainstream unit. Now she is so depressed she feels like giving up.
A male prisoner diagnosed with prostate cancer was also affected by paruresis and told me can’t pee when officers are watching. The prison medical staff know he has had cancer but won’t accept that he has paruresis. They told him he would have to pay for a private psychiatrist to come into the prison to make a diagnosis – at a cost of about $5,000.
Denial of rehabilitation
This Bill provides one more mechanism for punishing rather than rehabilitating prisoners. Any ‘misconduct’ in prison (such as a positive drug test or failing to provide a urine sample) leads to a denial of privileges – including attendance at rehabilitation programmes. Prisoners with drug problems have to give up drugs first and have a record of good behaviour before being allowed to attend drug treatment. Now it seems they have to stay thirsty as well. If they drink too much water and have diluted urine – that’s misconduct – meaning no rehabilitation.
There is no need for this punitive piece of legislation. The number of prisoners caught smoking cannabis is on the decline. In the last few years, Corrections has tightened up security and fewer drugs are smuggled in. In 2010, only 10.5% of prisoners tested positive on random drug tests – the lowest result since drug tests began in 1998. In contrast to this, in 2011, only 1,255 prisoners attended rehabilitation programmes targeting their offending. That’s about 5% of the 20,000 people who end up in prison each year. The Department doesn’t need to be more rigorous about drug testing. It needs to stop putting up barriers and put more prisoners into rehabilitation.
Roger Brooking: Author of Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct