Escalating suicide and violence in New Zealand prisons

In October 2012 new figures were released showing serious assaults on prison guards have  tripled in the past five years. During the year to the end of June, 18 staff were seriously assaulted – up from just six in 2007. And 235 cases of physical violence – which includes prisoners spitting or throwing water – were recorded in the past year, a rise of 190% on two years ago.

The rise in prison violence has led the Auditor General to express concern that the number of serious assaults and unnatural deaths in custody were much higher than expected. According to the Auditor General, assaults by remand prisoners on other prisoners in particular were 85% higher than expected and those by prisoners on staff were 160% higher than expected – expectations based on levels of violence in previous years.

The Auditor General, Lyn Provost,  is also concerned that the rate of unnatural deaths (suicides) among prisoners is too high. So she should be. Twelve prisoners committed suicide in 2011 – which means the rate of suicide in prison is now eleven times higher than in the community.

The coroner’s report into the suicide of Kerry Joll released last month provides revealing insights into the Department’s thinking on this issue. The coroner recommended that Corrections should improve its information systems so that the computer file of any prisoner known to be a suicide risk brings up a warning flag.  The Department responded by saying: “Improving our current information systems is regarded as not worth the benefits it would bring because of cost, complexity and proportionately few incidents it would benefit.”  Clearly, Corrections is not too worried about a few prisoners bumping themselves off – perhaps because  each dead prisoner saves the taxpayer $90,000 a year.

International panel appointed

But it is worried about assaults on prison officers. In November 2012, Corrections Minister Anne Tolley announced that former police commissioner Howard Broad will head an international panel to advise the Government on ways to improve the safety of prison staff. In addition, 4000 frontline prison staff are to receive Tactical Exit Training, to help them deal with potentially violent situations.  And, for the first time, staff in all prisons will have access to pepper spray and are being trained to use the spray as a tactical option.

Kim Workman of Rethinking Crime & Punishment congratulated Ms Tolley saying: “The establishment of an expert advisory panel to improve the safety of prisons could lead to a more balanced prison management regime”.

Workman is absolutely right that the management of New Zealand prisons is out of balance. There is an obsessive focus on risk management and enhanced security at the expense of education, rehabilitation and work opportunities for prisoners. Workman quotes prison expert Professor Andrew Coyle, who visited New Zealand last week. Coyle talked about the three main aspects of prison management – security, safety and prisoner activity. He says increasing prisoner activity – meaning rehabilitation and employment opportunities – makes prisons safer, while excessive focus on security measures threatens prison and staff safety. Coyle says: ”The three responsibilities are like three legs of a stool. If they are not in balance, then the stool will become unstable and may well fall over.”

Vote of no confidence

The appointment of an international panel does not sound like it will lead to greater ‘prisoner activity’.  It sounds more like a vote of no confidence in chief executive Ray Smith. Prison assaults and suicides have escalated dramatically since Smith took over – because of woefully inadequate health care for prisoners with mental health problems and tighter security measures implemented by his predecessor Barry Mathews.

The appointment of a panel to advise on safety issues suggests that Government is worried that the rates of violence and unnatural death in prison are out of control – and that, just like his predecessor, Ray Smith is not up to the job of turning the problem around.

4 thoughts on “Escalating suicide and violence in New Zealand prisons

  1. Roger, It is a shame that such good insight is not finding any fertile ground. The Pollies and management have put on blinkers and hardened themselves against reality, hoping it will go away. As long as Judith Collins is anywhere near the Justice system in NZ there will never be compassionate justice. They are blinded by the fear of their own fears. There are none so blind as those who don’t want to see.


    1. These problems are not caused by prisoners on medication. It has more to do with medication not being available.

      Research on the prevalence of ADHD suggests there are over 3,000 prisoners in NZ who may have this problem. In 2012 only 17 were on ritalin or any equivalent. The prison often takes prisoners off drugs that have been prescribed by specialists before they were sent to prison – including ritalin and opiate painkillers.

      In my experience, the prison service thinks all drugs are addictive and is not keen on letting prisoners have any – except paracetamol. Its often the lack of medication that contributes to suicide..


  2. The inhumane treatment of human beings in New Zealand prisons which consists of harassment, oppression, denial of medication, denial of social contact, denial of recreational activities, denial of educational and physical activities, excessive punishment, denial of nutritious healthy diets,locking up people in cells that measure 6ft x 8ft for 24/7 ignoring cries for help, denial of rehabilitation and proper care management programmes are the everyday facts of how the Department Of Corrections manages prisoners.
    Somehow it makes sense that people get angry, resentful, hostile and compelled to fight back. After all if you caged an animal in this way it would be deemed cruel and the animal may become vicious.


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