80% of countries use torture – New Zealand is one of them

When it comes to torture, there’s no shortage of means or methods. Some techniques – like having your toenails pulled out or being forced into unnatural stress positions – induce physical agony. Here’s a list of the ten most frequently used physical torture techniques. Other techniques like sleep deprivation or waterboarding induce intense psychological distress rather than physical suffering. Here’s a list of 11 psychological techniques used on prisoners at Guantanamo which the US government referred to as ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques – as if they were not really torture.

To the average coward like myself, having my toenails extracted with a pair of pliers sounds a lot worse than being water boarded.  But a report in the March 2007 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, says psychological techniques – such as exposure to adverse environmental conditions, forced stress positions, hooding, blindfolding, isolation, forced nudity, threats, humiliating and degrading treatment –  cause just as much trauma and distress as physical techniques.

This is because psychological techniques produce physical effects – and vice versa.   For instance, keeping someone awake for days on end causes a whole range of physiological effects including headaches, impaired memory and cognitive functioning, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stress, anxiety, depression, hallucinations and psychosis.  In other words, it can drive you crazy.

In other words, there is very little distinction between physical torture and “other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”   This conclusion is backed up by the  New Scientist which says research on 300 torture survivors from the former Yugoslavia shows that prisoners subjected to psychological torture  experienced just as much mental anguish (measured by rates of post-traumatic stress disorder) as those who were physically tortured.  New Scientist quotes US Senator John McCain, who was captured and tortured in Vietnam, who says:

“If he were forced to make a decision between enduring psychological or physical torture, he would not hesitate to pick the latter”.

80% of countries use torture

We tend to think that torture is practised mainly in dictatorships, former communist countries, third world countries – and by the United States at Guantanamo.  But according to Christian Davenport, Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, 80% of the countries in the world torture someone in any given year.  Although physical torture is less common in democracies, the 80% figure includes the use of psychological techniques that do not leave permanent marks or other evidence of physical trauma. Davenport says:

“Research shows that torture is depressingly common, and that democracies have led a global shift to ‘clean’ techniques that make torture harder to detect.”

Darius Rejali, professor of political science at Reed College, and an internationally recognized expert on government torture and interrogation, agrees.  In Torture and Democracy, he says that as democracy and human rights spread after World War II, so too did the use of “clean” techniques using electricity, ice, water, noise, drugs, and stress positions.  Led by the US, Britain and France, he argues that democracies not only tortured, but “set the international pace for torture”.  Perhaps it should be no surprise that after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre,  54 different countries  were willing to help the CIA outsource torture through the use of ‘extraordinary rendition’.

Definition of torture

The Human Rights Data Project  says both physical and psychological torture techniques are breaches of human rights and defines torture as:

The purposeful inflicting of extreme pain, whether mental or physical, by government officials or by private individuals at the instigation of government officials. This includes the use of physical and other force by police and prison guards that is cruel, inhuman, or degrading, and deaths in custody due to tangible negligence by government officials.”

Torture in New Zealand prisons

In New Zealand, the Crimes of Torture Act was passed in 1989 and made all forms of torture illegal. This has not stopped the Corrections Department from using cruel, inhumane and degrading practices on prisoners.  For instance, every year, more than 3000 prisoners a year are forced to suffer sleep deprivation and social isolation in the At Risk cells in our prisons. Exacerbating the cruelty, this form of torture is reserved for prisoners who are already suicidal or psychologically vulnerable.  They are also humiliated by having to perform the naked squat three or four times a day.

Thousands of prisoners are also subject to a form of enhanced pharmacological torture.  Instead of being given drugs which cause pain, prison doctors in New Zealand are told to take medication off prisoners who are in pain. Section 6.1.1 of the Department’s Medicines Policy “actively discourages” doctors from prescribing opiate (pain killers), benzodiazepines (for anxiety),  ritalin (for ADHD) – or any drug which might be ‘traded’ in prison. In some prisons, this policy appears to include anti-depressants and anti-psychotic medication. In other words, prison doctors are encouraged to breach their medical ethics, ignore the welfare of their patients, and allow them to suffer.

Then there’s prison dental torture. The Department has a ‘minimum dental services policy whereby prisoners with toothache or an abscess can have the tooth extracted – but are generally not allowed to have fillings. Long term prisoners, with a sentence of more than one year, may receive fillings provided their teeth were in good condition prior to coming to prison.   But there are lengthy waiting lists. Prisoners serving less than one year (80% of all those in prison), are told to wait till they get out to see a dentist.  The Ombudsman has described the pain and suffering this policy causes and wrote: “It is regrettable in a society such as New Zealand that a person deprived of their liberty can suffer needless dental deterioration while in the care of the State.”

Official reports on the treatment of prisoners

In recent years, there have been four investigations into the medical and dental treatment of prisoners in New Zealand.

In 2005, the Ombudsman published an Investigation of the Department of Corrections in relation to the detention and treatment of prisoners, which expressed concerns about the adequacy of mental health care, medical care and dental care in prison.

In 2009, Dr Michael Roguski and Fleur Chauvel interviewed 63 prisoners chosen at random asking questions about their medical ‘treatment’ in prison. They released a report titled: The Effects of Imprisonment on Inmates and their Families Health and Wellbeing. This documents a series of cruel and inhumane practices which are part of daily life in New Zealand prisons.

Partly based on Dr Roguski’s report, in 2010, the National Health Committee published Health in Justice: Improving the health of prisoners and their families and whanau. It said medical treatment of prisoners was so poor that the Government should “consider the case for transferring responsibility for prisoner primary health care from the Department of Corrections to the health sector.”

A more detailed investigation of prison health care was conducted by the Ombudsman in 2012: Investigation of the Department of Corrections in relation to the Provision, Access and Availability of Prisoner Health Services. Although the Ombudsman stopped short of using the word torture, this report also describes a litany of inhumane and degrading practices masquerading as medical and dental treatment.

All of these reports describe cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners in New Zealand. Most of the pain and suffering is result of ‘tangible negligence by government officials’ – although the Department’s ‘discouraged medication policy’ and ‘minimum dental services policy’ formalise this neglect and make it official policy. The three most recent reports all provide case histories and quite graphic details of the suffering these practices impose. But there’s one thing missing from all three reports.  The authors haven’t had the courage to name this ‘treatment’ for what it really is – institutionalised, psychological and pharmacological torture.

One thought on “80% of countries use torture – New Zealand is one of them

  1. Roger, I think you may have meant to write “enhanced interrogation techniques” as the US Government label for the new types of torture.


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