Diabetic dying to get out of prison

Jane Wilson is 36 year old drug addict. She was referred to me for an alcohol and drug assessment after being charged with possession of methamphetamine for supply.   She started using meth about ten years ago and began selling to friends and acquaintances to fund her habit.  She had also been smoking cannabis since she was 14 – usually on a daily basis.  I interviewed her in July 2012 in Arohata prison – by which time she had been on remand for three months as her case slowly winds its way through the courts.

This is not an uncommon story – except that Ms Wilson has diabetes, diagnosed at the age of 11. So for 25 years she has been injecting herself with insulin on a daily basis and usually requires five injections a day.

Diabetes requires careful management.  Diabetics are supposed to test their blood sugar levels four or five times a day in order to know how much insulin to inject. A normal reading is between 4.00 and 7.00 mmol. Readings below 4.00mmol are potentially dangerous as the brain is being starved of oxygen – a condition known as hypoglycaemia. The patient becomes weak, anxious and confused and if the blood sugar level continues to drop, they may become comatose and die.

Diabetics generally carry barley sugars or something sweet to give their sugar level a rapid boost if it drops too low.  Soon after arriving in Arohata, Ms Wilson was given a supply of glucose tablets and the prison nurse gave instructions that she was to have these with her ‘at all times’. The nurse then went on leave for eight weeks. Apparently believing that inmates cannot be trusted, even with glucose, prison officers took the tablets off her and kept them in the office. So whenever her blood sugar tested low, Ms Wilson had to press the emergency button in her cell and ask for help.

These requests were met with a variety of unhelpful or insulting responses such as:  “I hope you’re not cunting us around Wilson.”  On another occasion when her blood sugar was down to 2.4mmol, an officer said: “We can’t be doing this every night Wilson.” On yet another occasion, about half an hour before dinner was due to be served, her blood sugar dropped to 3.4mmol. She pressed the buzzer twice and was ignored twice. She had to ask the officer who brought the dinner to give her some sugar as well.  Next day Ms Wilson told a nurse what had happened and was assured the officers would be spoken to.  Later that day, a male guard said: “We don’t appreciate being complained about so don’t be expecting any favours.” Another officer told her: “It’s not all about you Wilson.”

In the report which I provided to the judge, I pointed out that this situation was making Ms Wilson very anxious. She was so upset she cried virtually every day, and became so depressed she needed antidepressants. She was afraid she might die from a hypoglycaemic attack because the prison officers just didn’t care. In my report I wrote:

1)      Ms Wilson’s situation is complicated by diabetes. Her concerns about the quality of care she currently receives significantly exacerbate her underlying anxiety.  Ms Wilson worries that she might die in prison because prison staff either don’t care or don’t know how to assist her regulate her blood sugar levels – especially at night when medical staff are not available. 

 2)       Corrections Department rules make it difficult for Ms Wilson to gain effective control of her blood sugar levels. I spoke to the specialist diabetic nurse (at Kenepuru Hospital) who expressed particular concern about the last meal of the day in prison being served at 4:30 p.m. She said that to maintain control of their blood sugar levels, diabetics need to eat six meals a day and need supper before going to bed in order to avoid developing low blood sugar during the night. She said that ‘low blood sugar is an extremely dangerous condition’ for Ms Wilson.  

 3)      In a recent report on the health of prisoners, the Ombudsman reported that: “Prisoners continue to complain that the national menus implemented by the Department do not consider the specific health needs of prisoners, especially diabetics.” Ms Wilson’s GP and the specialist diabetes nurse both expressed concern about the fatty prison food which is not good for diabetics.  They both felt that the prison regime with limited physical activity makes it even more difficult for a diabetic to manage blood sugar levels which require an appropriate balance between food intake and physical activity.

After nearly four months on remand, numerous hypoglycaemic attacks and one emergency visit to hospital, Ms Wilson eventually appeared in Court. The judge showed compassion and released her on electronic bail while her case proceeds. But if she receives a sentence of more than two years, she will have to go back to prison where she will be exposed to the same kind of treatment all over again.

Suicide and abuse of power at Otago Correctional Facility

Debra Kaye has a young son in prison at OCF. On April 17, she wrote on BrookingBlog: “Currently in Otago Correctional Facility there are five men that have been locked up for twenty three hours a day in their punishment cells. They have been put into the management (punishment) wing for over three months and denied any freedom other than an hour a day of basic exercise. ”

They were put into the management wing because they “raised a peaceful objection to the fact that they were being unfairly treated in the wing they were previously in. The power was turned off by the wardens, the water was cold when showering, and they were left outside in freezing weather, rain and snow for long periods. They were also given meagre (amounts of) food which does not allow for growth development in young men.”

When the men complained, “This led to accusations and unfounded allegations directed at them and a serious beating and assault on one or more of them. They were put into lock down and their basic human rights denied for months on end!”

“The youngest (of these men) is 19 years old and has spent two years in OCF without attending any rehabilitation programmes.  Apparently Corrections officers believe a prisoner has to earn the right to attend rehabilitation and they believe this is an acceptable way in which to teach prisoners about their wrong doing.”

The Coroner’s findings

Debra Kaye, who wrote this, is the mother of the 19 year old. As such one might wonder whether she is able to provide an objective account. Isn’t she just a naïve parent inclined to believe anything her son tells her. I don’t think so. She’s right about one thing at least. Prisoners who ‘misbehave’ are not allowed to attend rehabilitation. If the ‘misbehaviour’ is a trumped up, that’s just one of the many ways in which prisoners are denied access to rehabilitation programmes.

She also seems to be right about the abuse of prisoners at OCF – indeed, the coroner, David Crerar, has backed her up. Mr Crerar has just released his findings into the death in prison of Richard Barriball in which he was highly critical of Otago Corrections Facility (OCF) staff.

Barriball was found dead in his cell in conditions indicative of suicide on October 9, 2010. He was on remand at the time of his death. The coroner wrote that: “Richard Barriball considered that he was ‘set up’ in respect of the charges he was facing. The term of imprisonment he expected was uncertain. He also suffered from an underlying fear that he would be the victim of a prison assault.”

The coroner also noted that as a result of a recent operation on his arm, one of his arms was in a sling and Barriball was in a ‘considerable amount of pain’. However, the prison doctor withdrew three different painkillers which had been prescribed for him in the community. The coroner wrote:

“The causes of the death and the circumstances of the death of Richard Barriball have shown suboptimal care by OCF in two respects. One was the failure of OCF to provide delivery of prescribed pain relief at a time deemed most appropriate by clinicians”.

The other was that “his family’s concerns over his state of mental health went ignored by prison officials.” The coroner said two separate communications were made by family and by the prison chaplaincy expressing concerns to OCF about Barribal’s mental state. “This intelligence was not collected, recorded, reported or acted upon.” In the days leading up to Barriball’s death, Crerar said the stressors faced by Barriball, were overwhelming and this led to his suicide. In a separate case, the coroner was also highly critical of the way prison officers treated Anna Kingi who died in prison in 2008.

Systemic psychological abuse

In the Annual Report of Activities under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), which New Zealand signed in 2007, the Ombudsman expressed concerns about the treatment of vulnerable prisoners by the Corrections Department. Corrections refusal to provide medication to prisoners who are in pain has been discussed in this article:  The prison health system – maybe it’s not torture, but it hurts like hell.  The use of sleep deprivation and the ‘naked squat’ on mentally ill prisoners in New Zealand, is discussed here: Officers look up prisoner’s anus – 84 times in three weeks.

Are prison officers abusing their power and psychologically torturing the inmates? The evidence is mounting and it’s time for an inquiry – especially at the Otago Corrections Facility.

Officers look up prisoner’s anus – 84 times in three weeks.

Kim Dotcom recently spent a month on remand in Mt Eden prison after the Solicitor General bowed to pressure to have him extradited to the United States.   The police took away his cars and froze his bank accounts.  In prison, Corrections took away his blankets and deprived him of sleep – they woke him up every two hours. Dotcom said he was treated like a convicted criminal – as if depriving convicted criminals of sleep was a legitimate practice.

Sleep deprivation cells

It’s not legitimate. Sleep deprivation was declared illegal under Article 3 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. New Zealand signed the convention in 1985.  Then there’s Section 5 of the Corrections Act (2004) which requires the Department to ensure prisons are “operated in accordance with rules (and regulations) in this Act and… are based, amongst other matters, on the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.”   Rule 31 states:  “All cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments shall be completely prohibited.”

The management of Corrections just ignore all this – sleep deprivation is a deliberate and daily practice in New Zealand prisons. What’s worse, it’s reserved primarily for those who are least able to cope with it – prisoners who are suicidal and psychologically vulnerable. The Corrections Department even has special cells for suicidal prisoners with camera surveillance 24/7 so the prisoner can be observed at all times – including on the toilet.  Anything the prisoner might use to commit suicide is taken away; they’re not allowed underwear, clothes, sheets or blankets – in case they rip them up to use as a rope.  All they get to wear is a canvas tunic. It’s so tough it can’t be ripped – and it’s very uncomfortable.

Throughout the night, the lights come on automatically every 30 minutes, so staff can see if the prisoner is doing anything – other than sleeping.  Euphemistically, the Department calls these ‘At Risk’ cells. In reality, they’re Sleep Deprivation cells and Corrections has 160 of them.

The naked squat

Sleep deprivation is not the only breach of UN Rule 31.  Another is ‘the naked squat’. I heard about this from a prisoner who spent a weekend in these so-called ‘At Risk’ cells. Immediately after being sentenced, he was taken to the Receiving Office at Rimutaka prison. There he was told to strip naked in front of four officers, and crouch down so the cheeks of his bum spread apart. Two officers got down and looked up his anus – to see whether he had a cell phone, drugs or other contraband hidden up there. Then he had to stand and hold up his penis and scrotum so they could see if he was hiding anything under his genitals. Finally they looked under his armpits and into his mouth.

After this inspection, the prisoner was asked: “How are you feeling?”  He replied: “A bit delicate.” That was enough to warrant a trip to the ‘At Risk’ cells.  Two officers escort him, and hand him over to another set of officers – who tell him to strip off once again. He protests – somewhat timidly – saying he’s just been searched five minutes ago. But it’s in the rules. All prisoners being admitted to the At Risk/Sleep Deprivation cells have to be searched.  So once again, he strips off and does ‘the naked squat’ while more officers eagerly examine every orifice.

In the morning, he’s taken to the shower block – where pretty much everything he does can be observed. Once he’s brought back to his cell, he has to do the squat again.  Then he’s taken to a different cell to have breakfast. He asks why? No one seems to know. After breakfast, he’s brought back and once again, the officers examine his anus and genitals. The same thing happens after lunch and after dinner. He’s required to perform ‘the naked squat’ every time he comes back to his cell. Why? Because he’s a prisoner, a species less than human, and it’s in the rules. In the course of one weekend, he had to spread his cheeks 11 times.

Another extremely vulnerable prisoner was kept in these Sleep Deprivation cells for three weeks. Imagine that – anxious and suicidal, nothing to do, no TV, no distractions for three weeks on end – except the lights turning on and off all night; and nothing to look forward to except the intense embarrassment of performing the naked squat in front of prison officers who want to examine every orifice four times a day. Don’t forget, this is all happening in a secure environment where the prisoner has no contact with the outside world – where it is simply not possible to find anything to put up your arse, except perhaps a piece of soap from the shower.  But why would you want to do that? This prisoner endured this indignity four times a day for three weeks – that’s 84 times. How degrading is that?

Anal analysis

The ideal treatment for depressed or suicidal patients would generally include emotional support, counselling and/or antidepressant medication. For such patients, getting a good night’s sleep is paramount.  Treatment should focus on improving the prisoner’s state of mind.

But the prisoner is not really human. He’s barely an animal, so the treatment is focused on his anus – and keeping him awake for days on end. This is an appalling abuse of power – and a breach of the Corrections Act and United Nations Conventions.  Dotcom was right. He was tortured. When this sort of abuse happens in other countries, Amnesty International and a few academics are quick to point out the perpetrators. Meanwhile, the abuse of sleep deprived prisoners in New Zealand has been going on for years.  The Corrections Department is obsessed with this anal analysis  – unfortunately, the rest of us don’t seem to give a shit.

Roger Brooking

Author of Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct

Sleep deprivation and pain medication – how Dotcom was ‘tortured’ in prison

Internet tycoon Kim Dotcom recently spent a month in the Auckland Central Remand prison (ACRP) after the US government persuaded New Zealand police that his file sharing company, Megaupload, was infringing US copyright laws.   ACRP is run by Serco, an international conglomerate which runs prisons in a number of countries including New Zealand.  In Britain, Serco prisons have been criticised for institutional meanness and forcing prisoners to sleep in toilets.  In 2011, the company was criticised over the suicide of a 14 year old boy who was mistreated by staff in one of its British prisons.   Serco also runs the overcrowded Australian Federal Detention Centre for asylum seekers at Christmas Island. In November 2010, 230 asylum seekers in the island prison began a hunger strike; 20 prisoners sewed their lips together and one Iraqi Kurd, a man in his 30s attempted to commit suicide. In 2011, the New Zealand Government allowed Serco to take over the management of ACRP which is primarily used to hold prisoners on remand.

14,000 New Zealanders are sent to prison on remand every year. Mr Dotcom was also on remand, denies he has done anything illegal, and appears to have a good case. But according to the NZ Herald, he was treated like a convicted criminal.  He reports that on the first night he wasn’t allowed blankets or toilet paper and was woken up every two hours.  The mattresses used by prisoners are really thin (about two inches) and the beds are solid concrete.  Most prisoners find them uncomfortable – let alone someone as big as Dotcom.   In other words he was subject to sleep deprivation – which he said felt like torture.

The Minimum Prison Standards

Sleep deprivation is no joke.  In fact it is an enhanced torture technique  used by the CIA because it leaves no scars or visible signs.  When taken to extremes, it drives the victim insane.    New Zealand legislation covering the treatment of prisoners is contained in the Corrections Act passed in 2004. Section 5 of the Act requires the Department to ensure facilities are “operated in accordance with rules (and regulations) in this Act and… are based, amongst other matters, on the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.”   UN Rule 31 states:  “All cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments shall be completely prohibited.”  Such treatment is also illegal under Article 16 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment which New Zealand signed in 1985.

Sleep deprivation is not the only inhumane treatment Dotcom was subject to.  He was also taken to and from court in a prison van – chained to a metal seat inside a small cage. This aggravated a back injury.  He told the NZ Herald that one trip caused shockwaves of pain up his back, after which he required treatment in the prison medical unit. He couldn’t walk so Serco staff dragged him to the unit on a blanket where he was given Paracetamol and a wheel chair.

Violence and suicide in NZ prisons

Despite such incidents, the Corrections Department would have us believe that NZ prisons are safe and humane.  Let’s look at the facts. The number of inmates with gang affiliations has doubled in the past five years and, what a surprise – the number of prisoners attacking other inmates has also doubled.  In May 2010, James Palmer (an American) became the first prison officer to be killed in a New Zealand prison after he was punched by an inmate and cracked his skull on the concrete floor.  In 2011, the number of serious assaults on staff went up by 600% on the on previous year.  Prisoners are raped and many commit suicide.

The stress of being on remand while waiting for police to bring the charges to court is often a contributing factor to these suicides.  In 2010, four residents from Feilding killed themselves while awaiting trial or sentencing in the space of three months. Statistics released by the chief coroner’s office found that 27 prisoners on remand have killed themselves in the last few years and the number of remand prisoners who commit suicide has more than doubled in the last two years. In 2010 in addition to those who died, another 190 prisoners attempted suicide.

Denial of appropriate pain medication

Because of increased levels of violence, prisoners sometimes end up in hospital – with broken limbs, head injuries or perhaps an eye poked out.  Prisoners also get sick with cancer, heart disease, abscesses and infected teeth.  Sometimes they have back injuries like Kim Dotcom. But no matter how bad the pain, Paracetamol is all they get. If they have an operation in hospital and need morphine for pain relief, when they get back to prison, the morphine is taken away.

The Ombudsman recently conducted an investigation into the health and medical treatment of prisoners.  His report makes it clear that prisoners are entitled to the same level of health care as anyone else in the community but cites numerous incidences where prisoners in severe pain were denied medically prescribed pain killers. The Ombudsman reported: “We were told by prisoners that they are frequently advised by custody staff, ‘to take paracetamol and lie down’ or ‘paracetamol will fix everything’.  Many prisoners told us that paracetamol does not relieve the level of pain they experience.”  In a previous post, it was reported that the Corrections Department denies access to certain psychiatric medication; for instance hundreds of prisoners in New Zealand have ADHD but are not allowed Ritalin in prison.


So let’s get the story straight. New Zealand prisons are far from ‘safe’; neither are they ‘humane’.  There is no doubt that Kim Dotcom was subject to cruel and inhuman treatment by Serco. He was not the first – and he will not be the last.  Cruel and inhuman treatment is a daily occurrence in our prison system; by denying prisoners medication prescribed by specialists, prison health services are complicit in this torture.  And let’s not forget that Dotcom’s prosecution is being driven by the United States – a country which endorses the use of enhanced torture techniques at Guantanamo Bay and flights of rendition to allow prisoners to be tortured in other countries.  We should keep a close eye on what happens at Serco-run prisons in New Zealand.

The ritalin rules in prison

ADHD stands for attention hyperactivity disorder. Kids who’ve got it are either inattentive, hyperactive, impulsive or sometimes all three – and it affects between 3% and 5% of school age kids. As at July 2009, there were 760,859 children attending school in NZ which means somewhere between 23,000 and 38,000 children have the disorder.

According to a New Zealand support group, as many as two-thirds of children with ADHD have additional problems. 30-50% will have conduct disorder – a childhood behavioural problems which sometimes leads to anti-social personality disorder in adults.  20-25% of those with ADHD will have anxiety problems. Generally 20-30% of ADHD children also have learning problems and struggle to read and write.  For approximately 75% of those with ADHD their symptoms continue into adulthood, although levels of hyperactivity may decrease with age.

What causes it? It may be genetic. But whatever the cause, the majority of evidence suggests that in those with ADHD, the frontal cortex of the brain under-performs  leading to a loss of attention,  planning and impulse control. It responds to stimulant medications (including ritalin). Although ritalin is a stimulant, paradoxically it has a calming effect on people with ADHD. This is because it stimulates the frontal cortex which generally improves concentration and impulse control for the sufferer.

Dr Paul Taylor, a paediatrician in Nelson, estimates that about 43% of those who end up in  prison have ADHD.  That means in New Zealand prisons, there are currently about 3,700 prisoners who may benefit from ritalin or a similar medication.  In 2012 I made an official OIA inquiry to the Corrections Department asking how many prisoners were currently prescribed ritalin (or an equivalent). The answer was 17.

Risk factor for substance abuse and offending

When ADHD is not treated, it becomes a significant risk factor for substance abuse and criminal offending.  So treating it is especially important for those who end up in the justice system. When left untreated, prisoners with ADHD struggle to concentrate in rehabilitation programmes and may become disruptive.  This happened to Mr Chris Wills, an inmate in Mt Crawford prison, who I interviewed prior to his parole board hearing in 2012.  Mr Wills has a long-standing drug problem and for many years self-medicated his ADHD with methamphetamine (another well-known stimulant). Eventually he sought help from mental health services in the community and was prescribed ritalin. He ended up in prison shortly thereafter, and without consulting a doctor, prison management took him off it.

Sometimes prisoners’ behavioural problems become so bad, the prisoner ends up in 24 hour lock-up. This happened to Mr Kurt Winklemann  who was sent to prison for an assault in 2008; he had ADHD and was also denied ritalin when he got to prison.  His behaviour deteriorated and he ended up in the ‘management unit’ for difficult prisoners.  Rehabilitation programmes are not available in the management unit. To get into rehabilitation, you have to behave yourself first – without your medication.

Drugs of abuse

The Department generally justifies the denial of ritalin to prisoners on the grounds that it is a drug of abuse.  So is methadone.  But offenders who are sent to prison while on  methadone  still get  it  – because opiate addicts on methadone are less likely to re-offend when they get out.  In 2011, 89 prisoners were on methadone.  It’s dispensed in a controlled environment under strict supervision – and there is absolutely no reason why ritalin could not be dispensed in the same manner.

Inmates are also not generally allowed opiate based pain killers either – no matter how much pain they’re in. If a prisoner requires hospital treatment and is given morphine for pain relief,  once they return to prison, the morphine will be terminated.  This is because the Department regards opiates as drugs of abuse. So if a prisoner gets stabbed, has a broken leg, or a tooth removed, no matter how bad the pain is, probably all he will get is Panadol.

Back to the ‘ritalin rules’. On February 12, 2012 the Herald on Sunday ran a story about Mr Wells and Mr Winklemann.  Acting National health manager for the Corrections Department, Bronwyn Donaldson, was quoted as saying that “Ritalin was available for some prisoners. An alternative was given to inmates who are at risk of abusing the drug.”  Really? In 2010, there were 560 teenagers in New Zealand prisons and over half  have ADHD. In my work as an alcohol and drug counsellor, I have interviewed dozens of prisoners with this condition. Not one was on ritalin or any other medication.

Prisoners set up to fail

What this all means is that prisoners with ADHD  (and other mental health problems) are  set up to fail.  Not only does Mr Wills struggle to focus while attending rehabilitation  in prison, he also needs to attend a drug treatment program when he gets out. He comes up for parole shortly but two community-based treatment programs have already declined to accept him until he is stabilised on medication. Catch-22. Mr Wills is likely to relapse to methamphetamine or other drugs as soon as  he gets out.  He needs to be stabilised now – while he’s still in custody.

One more point. Appropriate medical treatment is a basic human right and the Department has a statutory obligation to provide it.  Section 75 of the Corrections Act 2004 states that: “A prisoner is entitled to receive medical treatment that is reasonably necessary” and “the standard of healthcare that is available to prisoners in a prison must be reasonably equivalent to the standard of healthcare available to the public”.

By denying prisoners access to appropriate medication, not only does the Department set them up to fail,  it is also in breach of the Act.  The Department should get its Act together – and read the rules instead of making up its own.

Another untreated drug addict – the story of William Bell

In 1997, William Bell was sent to prison for five years nine months after he attacked and almost killed an attendant at a petrol station.  At the time of this assault, he already had 102 convictions for a raft of offences including theft, fraud, burglary, aggravated robbery, assault, trespass, and possession of drugs.   He was released in July 2001 after serving 3½ years.  Based on the law at the time, he was set free after serving two-thirds of his sentence, and the Parole Board had no say in the matter, other than deciding what release conditions to impose on him.

Bell managed to find work experience at the RSA in Panmure – without the permission of his probation officer.  However, staff at the RSA apparently didn’t trust him and after only two weeks, he was ordered to leave.  Bell had experienced rejection for most of his life and couldn’t handle it. Two months later, he came back and stole $12,000. In the process, he bludgeoned and shot three people to death, and seriously injured a fourth – Susan Couch.

What the investigation missed

The investigation which followed blamed understaffing, low morale and poor management within the Mangere Probation Service.  It also blamed the police for failing to act when he committed a minor offence a month before the murders.  The focus of the investigation was on what happened after Bell was released. The fact that he had been incarcerated for 3½ years and not been required to do any rehabilitation programmes in prison was completely ignored. The most significant oversight was that he was not required to attend treatment for his alcohol and drug problem.

He obviously had one. In addition to telling prison staff about his drinking, Bell came from a family with gang connections where binge drinking and drug use were part of daily life.  According to witnesses who testified at his trial, Bell was up all night drinking and smoking cannabis before the murders which occurred at about 8.00am the following morning.   He admitted he was using methamphetamine and apparently told his family he ‘blacked out’ while inside the RSA.

In other words, Bell had a history of alcohol and drug use which began long before he was sent to prison for attacking the service station attendant in 1997. Presumably, he continued smoking cannabis in prison. At the time of his rampage at the RSA four years later, he was drunk, stoned and high on methamphetamine – and had been awake for over 24 hours. Such conditions are clearly not conducive to impulse control. The combination of three different drugs in his system, combined with a lifetime of abuse, abandonment, and low self-esteem turned out to be lethal.

What Corrections failed to do

The most damning part of this story is that the Corrections Department was well aware that Bell’s offending was alcohol and drug-related – but did nothing about it. He was supposed to see a psychologist and have alcohol and drug treatment when he got out. Common sense dictates that Bell should have seen a psychologist and had alcohol and drug treatment while he was still in prison – rather than leaving this up to an understaffed and demoralised Probation Service to organise once he got out.

But no treatment was provided, and the Corrections Department failed to provide the Parole Board with an alcohol and drug assessment describing the extent of his addictions.  At his hearing, the Board members were effectively in the dark – ‘flying blind’ to quote Judge Carruthers. If an AOD assessment had been provided even at that late stage, the Board could have released him directly to a residential treatment programme in the community.  Instead, he was released to unsupervised accommodation in Auckland where he was free to drink and take whatever drugs he could find.

The point is that the mistakes made once Bell was released may never have occurred had the Corrections Department made better use of his 3½ years in custody. The Department’s failure to address his problems with substance abuse in prison far outweighed subsequent mistakes made by the Mangere Probation Service on his release. The failure to monitor Bell in the community simply added to a long chain of errors – and highlighted a systemic failure by Corrections to address addiction issues in prison. If he had been required to attend treatment in prison, and/or if he had been released directly into a residential programme in Auckland, William Bell’s victims might still be alive today.  And Susan Couch wouldn’t have had to waste ten years of her life trying to sue the Corrections Department for damages.

James Whenuaroa – sent to prison for stealing orange juice

On January 7, the New Zealand Herald reported the story of James Whenuaroa – sentenced to prison for six weeks for stealing a bottle of orange juice from a supermarket. He told the judge he took it because he was hot and thirsty. Perhaps the most pertinent part of the story was that Mr Whenuaroa has 350 previous convictions.

What the Herald didn’t report was that Mr Whenuaroa is a chronic alcoholic who has a history of drinking methylated spirits and as a result, has some measure of cognitive impairment. Virtually his entire history of offending has occurred because of his drinking – mostly for shoplifting alcohol, being drunk and disorderly and willful trespass. He has been sent to prison nearly 40 times in the last 20 years; he’s usually in and out three or four times a year. When he gets out, he starts drinking again the same day.

The battle for a neuropsychological assessment

Mr Whenuaroa was referred for an alcohol and drug assessment at least three times – in 2006, 2007 and 2008. After interviewing him in 2006, I recommended to the Court that Mr Whenuaroa should have a neuropsychological assessment (to see what he’s capable of learning) and be referred to Moana House which is a long term rehabilitation programme in Dunedin. The judge ignored the recommendation and sent Mr Whenuaroa to prison instead.

In 2007 I again recommended a neuropsychological assessment. This time the judge agreed, but when Mr Whenuaroa appeared for sentencing two months later, the assessment had not been done as the psychologist was too busy. Moana House refused to accept him without one. He was released on to the street and relapsed immediately. Not surprisingly Mr Whenuaroa re-offended soon afterwards and was remanded in prison once again.

The assessment was finally completed nearly a year later. However, this time the Court refused to release a copy of it either to his lawyer, to Moana House or to myself. Once again, Mr Whenuaroa was released into the street and relapsed immediately. Not surprisingly, he reoffended and appeared in court again in 2008. Finally, the court agreed to release a copy of the psychologist’s report to those who were trying to help him and Mr Whenuaroa eventually made it to Moana House. However, he left after a few weeks as he wanted to go and see his alcoholic girlfriend in Taupo.

The need for compulsory treatment

Over the years Mr Whenuaroa has been referred to residential treatment programs a number of times. But because of years of alcohol abuse, he has significant memory problems. His short term memory is so poor he struggles to remember anything he was told more than 30 minutes before.  So even when he attends rehabilitation, he can’t remember what he is taught. Because of his condition, he needs long term treatment and long-term support afterwards. But he never lasts the distance. He gets frustrated and generally walks off after a few weeks. And no one makes him stay.

Mr Whenuaroa can be made to stay in prison – for a few weeks at a time. That’s easy to achieve – even though rehabilitation is not available to the 7000 prisoners a year given short sentences.  Let’s not forget that 80% of those sent to prison each year are given short sentences and our prison system simply doesn’t cater for them. With a few exceptions, only those given a sentence of more than two years are allowed to attend rehabilitation programmes.

So although Mr Whenuaroa has been forced to stay in prison 40 times, he has never been ‘forced’ to complete a treatment programme. That’s just crazy. Mr Whenuaroa could be compelled to stay in treatment – by committing him to a rehab programme in the community under the Alcohol and Drug Act or the Mental Health Act. To put that in place takes a bit of time, thought and energy but Mr Whenuaroa has never been committed. Instead the justice system recycles him – in and out of prison, and occasionally, in and out of rehab.

The $3 million cost

Recycling is expensive. He’s already 47 years old and as a lifetime offender, he will end up costing the taxpayer more than $3 million in police, court, prison and legal aid costs. Once his health deteriorates, he will need even more assistance – from the health system. If he was compelled to attend long term treatment for 18 months under the Alcohol and Drug Act, that might cost about $50,000. Not a bad investment – both for Mr Whenuaroa and for society. All it would take is for the justice system to have enough compassion and resolve to find out what Mr Whenuaroa really needs – instead of sending him to prison for stealing a bottle of orange juice.