In 2009 Dr Michael Roguski and Fleur Chauvel interviewed 63 New Zealand prisoners chosen at random asking questions about their treatment in prison. In a report titled The Effects of Imprisonment on Inmates and their Families Health and Wellbeing, the researchers document a number of inhumane and degrading practices which cause intense psychological suffering; these produce the same level of trauma as physical torture techniques.
These inhumane practices are part of daily life in New Zealand prisons. One of the most abusive is the use of ‘At Risk’ cells. These are special observation cells for potentially suicidal prisoners. The prisoner’s clothes and underwear are taken away and replaced with a ‘suicide proof’ canvas tunic. There’s no TV, no radio, nothing to read and no visitors are allowed. The prisoner is locked up in a small cell 23 hours a day – with one hour for exercise in a slightly bigger cell. The camera is on 24 hours a day, and the lights come on at night every 15 minutes so officers can check that the prisoner is still alive – although sometimes they don’t check and the prisoner still dies.
Perhaps the most inhumane feature of these At Risk cells is the lights turning on and off so the prisoner can’t sleep. So if he wasn’t suicidal when he came in, he soon will be. Keeping someone awake for days on end causes a range of physiological symptoms including headaches, anxiety and impaired cognitive functioning. It also causes high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, and can lead to depression, hallucinations and psychosis. The effects are so debilitating, the United States uses sleep deprivation to torture prisoners at Guantanamo.
Placing a prisoner who is already disturbed into a cell where he is unable to sleep is about as barbaric as it gets. And yet this is exactly what the Department did with Antonie Dixon who has a long history of mental illness. He was in the At Risk cells for months before he finally killed himself. He covered up the camera with toilet paper and somehow managed to hang himself with a rope made out of the ‘suicide proof’ canvas tunic.
Dixon should have been in a psychiatric hospital where he could receive proper psychiatric treatment. The fact that he managed to commit suicide after months and months in an At Risk cell highlights the pain and suffering he experienced. Even if Corrections didn’t physically torture him, psychological torture produces the same trauma as physical techniques. What happened to Dixon was torture – pure and simple.
Fear of going to At Risk
Dixon’s case is one of the worst. But out of the 63 prisoners that Roguski and Chauvel interviewed, nearly half had been diagnosed with a psychiatric condition prior to their incarceration. Bearing in mind, the suicide rate in New Zealand prisons is 11 times higher than in the community. And on any given day, 20% of New Zealand prisoners are ‘thinking a lot’ about killing themselves. That’s about 1,700 prisoners who are potentially suicidal on a daily basis – out of a total of 8,500. Dr Roguski says these prisoners are so afraid of going to At Risk, they often refuse to ask for help. He wrote:
“Participants (in the research) who were experiencing depression and suicidal ideation made decisions not to seek intervention for fear of being placed in the At Risk unit.”
It gets worse. These At Risk cells are not just reserved for the suicidal. The Department also uses them for prisoners who are merely upset or tearful. One man in Roguski’s study described how he ended up in At Risk:
“When I came from the court house it was close to midnight ’cause I was waiting all day for a verdict. Then I come in, got strip searched and everything, and then they go to me, “Are you alright? “ “Yeah I’m alright.” But I had a bit of a tear in my eye because I was thinking about my kids. Then they go, “How about we just put you on observations for the night?”
They were like, “Don’t worry you will just be here for the night until we sort it out”. One night turned into three weeks and I told them every day, “Mister can I go back to remand?” … “Yeah, hang on we’ll sort it out.” Three weeks later I was still in At Risk… I was going nuts.” (Anaru, Māori man, 18–25 years)
Some prisoners have spent months in these appalling conditions. In response to an Official Information Act request, the Department advised that in 2011, over 3,000 prisoners were placed in these At Risk cells. That’s more than one third of the entire prison population. One prisoner spent almost an entire year in one – 349 days to be precise. Maria McDonald, Assistant General Manager, Prison Services who replied to my OIA thought this was totally justified. She claimed this occurred because:
“The prisoner may not have presented with a treatable mental illness and forensic treatment may not have been identified as the appropriate form of clinical management.”
Yeah right! Based on his research, Dr Roguski came to an entirely different conclusion about the use of these cells. He wrote:
“It was generally felt that officers, and some medical staff, automatically channelled prisoners into At Risk, or left them there for inappropriate amounts of time, due to lack of training and a limited availability of medical professionals to deal with possible mental health crises. As a result, participants related that if prisoners appeared to be emotional then they would be placed in an At Risk cell.”
According to the Ombudsman, “Prisoners will often drift in and out of At Risk Units, whether they are at risk of self-harm or not.”
The reality is that officers can only channel prisoners into At Risk if a prison nurse gives their permission and signs the appropriate form. In other words, its prison nurses, rather than the officers, who are endorsing the use of these torture cells. What’s truly remarkable is that before publication, Dr Roguski showed his report to Corrections management to obtain their feedback. He said he was quite surprised they didn’t disagree or express an objection to any of his findings.