The research on familicide all points to Robin Bain as the killer

david-bainFamilicide is the name given to a particular kind of multiple murder – where one member of a family kills virtually everyone else in the family. If the perpetrator commits suicide afterwards (which occurs in 60% of such cases), it is referred to as familicide-suicide.

In June, 1994, David Bain was accused of shooting all five members of his family – the crime of familicide. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison – although according to Canadian judge Ian Binnie ‘no plausible motive ever emerged’.  He spent 13 years in prison before a retrial, at which he was found not guilty.

Throughout this process, David’s defence team argued that Robin Bain killed his wife and children while David was out delivering newspapers; that he typed the cryptic message found on the family computer (‘Sorry. You are the only one who deserved to stay’) and then shot himself – in a case of familicide-suicide.

Callinan
Ian Callinan: forced to stand down in Australia because of perceived bias

Binnie said David should get compensation. The Government didn’t like that idea and shopped around for another judge – one who was willing to write a report declaring that David didn’t deserve it. They found one in Ian Callinan QC, who had a history of bending the rules in Australia.

So far, not much has been reported in the New Zealand media about Callinan’s dodgy legal ethics or the extraordinary flaws in his compensation report. But there’s a wealth of information available on the David Bain Campaign website.

Familicide

But there’s another side to this story which has not seen much daylight either. A systematic review of the literature on familicide  found a number of common factors in such incidents. The first is that in 95% of cases where both parents were killed, the perpetrator was the father. Only 1% of familicides are committed by an adult son. The researcher wrote:

“In cases where (one of the) sons killed both parents, the research indicates that the perpetrator is always either severely abused, suffering from severe mental disorders (usually psychotic) or psychopathic. There are no identified cases where the son exhibits none of these pathologies and does not commit suicide.”

robin-bain
Robin Bain fits the profile for familicide

Second, many of these fathers displayed symptoms of depression prior to the killings and a number of Robin Bain’s professional colleagues testified to this effect. Fellow teachers described Robin at the time of the killings as “deeply depressed, to the point of impairing his ability to do his job of teaching children”.

He also published graphic and inappropriate stories of violence and killings by his 9-year-old pupils in the school newsletter; one of those stories involved the murder of an entire family. The president of the Taieri Principals’ Association at the time, found this “unbelievable” and regarded the publication of these stories as “the clearest possible evidence that Robin Bain had lost touch with reality due to his mental state” (Privy Council, 2007, para 41). The publication also suggests Robin had possibly been planning to kill his family months in advance.

It appears Robin Bain never sought professional help for depression, but this is another point of commonality; fathers who commit familicide tend to view themselves as the head of the family, and “control their outer image closely, rarely confiding in people or seeking help”. The fact that family and friends said Robin appeared to be happy is consistent with other familicides; such men internalise their personal sufferings in order to maintain appearances.

Angry vs despairing perpetrators 

The literature also suggests there are two types of familicide perpetrator. At one end of the continuum, there is the angry type – men who have displayed a well-established history of anger and hostile behaviour, especially towards women. For this type, the killing of one’s partner and children is an act of revenge or punishment, usually following parental separation. At the other end of the continuum, there is the despairing type of perpetrator who has no previous history of hostile behaviour and is generally well regarded in the community. This description applies to Robin Bain.  For this type, familicide, followed by suicide is “an escape both for himself and his family from an intolerable future”.

In addition to feelings of depression and anger, the literature shows that familicide is generally preceded by a prolonged build-up of shame. This usually follows parental separation or a serious breakdown in the relationship; loss of employment or significant financial losses may also be involved.  These lead to a psychological loss of control and/or a perceived loss of social status.   Robin Bain also fits this profile. He and Margaret had been estranged for several years and by all accounts, he was unfulfilled in his job. He had applied for a number of other teaching positions, but was unsuccessful.

But for Robin Bain, there may have been an even greater source of shame. He was a Christian, a Freemason and a respected member of the community. At the second trial, witnesses said he had been committing incest with his youngest daughter, Laniet, ever since the family came back from Papua New Guinea. If indeed he had been molesting her, this would have created intense feelings of guilt and internal conflict. It seems that “despair is the end-state for these perpetrators”.

The triggering event

The research also found that in most cases of familicide there is usually some kind of triggering event, one which leads to a sense of “ignominy, terminal public shame, mortification and self-disgust”.  Testimony at the second trial suggests Laniet was about to reveal to the rest of the family what her father had been doing to her. It seems the potential loss of face Robin Bain was facing was so great, he not only killed everyone else in the family (except David), he also shot himself. This is another point of commonality.  In over 60% of familicide cases, the offender subsequently commits suicide.

In summary, David Bain did not have an identified motive, did not have a mental health disorder and did not commit suicide. Robin Bain did, or had, all three. In every single aspect of this case, it is Robin Bain rather than David Bain, who fits the profile of the typical perpetrator of familicide, followed by suicide.

How hard can it be to kill yourself? Just try that in prison.

Suicide montageMost people have thought about suicide, perhaps fleetingly, at some point in the lives.  Quite a few actually try. But killing yourself is not easy – even when you’re depressed and desperate.  Research suggests that between 10 and 20 people make an attempt for every one that succeeds.

A ‘successful’ suicide takes a lot of thought. You need a well thought out plan and the means to actually do it, such as access to a gun or a cliff to jump off. If you’re serious, you also need to choose a place carefully, one where no one will try and stop you.

Private vs public suicide

Private suicide spotVery little research has been done on where suicides usually take place.  One British study found that most people commit suicide in private where no one is likely to intervene.  It found that only about 30% of suicides occurred in public places, but nearly half of those occurred in isolated rural locations where intervention was also unlikely.  This suggests about 85% of suicides occur in ‘private’.

However, this particular study also classified suicides in prison as ‘private’.  They’re not.  Prisoners have almost no privacy, especially those who have to share a cell. There are cameras monitoring common areas and officers are supposed to check on prisoners in their cells at regular intervals.

Common means to kill yourself

Considerably more research has been conducted on the means people use to kill themselves.  The most common methods include  shooting yourself (especially in the US),  drug overdose, drinking poison, jumping from a height,  drowning, hanging,  throwing yourself in front of a moving object, carbon monoxide poisoning (car exhaust) and suffocation with a plastic bag.  Some of these are done in public places, but the majority occur in private.

hangingMost of these means are not available to prisoners which leaves hanging as the only viable option. But even that can be difficult – modern prisons are designed to ensure there are no obvious ligature or hanging points.  It’s also hard for prisoners to find something to make a noose. In New Zealand prisons, inmates who are known to be depressed are placed in the At Risk cells with no clothes, sheets or blankets.  All they get is a canvas tunic which is almost impossible to rip up.  And there is a camera in the cell 24/7.

Despite such difficulties, Antonie Dixon hung himself by covering up the camera with wet toilet paper for five hours while he slowly ripped up the canvas tunic – and no one intervened.  Another inmate with an injured arm hung himself with his sling. The reality is that 91% of prisoners who commit suicide in New Zealand do so by hanging.

Prison suicide rate

According to the Ministry of Health, New Zealand’s suicide rate among the general population is 10.6 per 100,000 people.  The suicide rate in prison varies from year to year but on average is five to ten times higher than the rate in the community.  In 2011, 11 prisoners committed suicide giving a rate of 129 per 100,000. This means that in 2011, 12 times as many prisoners killed themselves (per head of population) than  depressed individuals in the community – despite the fact that inmates who commit suicide are doing it in an environment where there is very little privacy and hanging is virtually the only means available.

Despite these difficulties, in the last five years about 30 prisoners have managed to commit suicide in New Zealand.  But there’s more to this suffering than meets the eye.  After Liberty Charles Baker killed himself in Mt Eden prison last week, Corrections Department Northern Regional Commissioner, Jeanette Burns, said:

jeanette burns“Our staff have saved the lives of approximately 100 prisoners over the last five years. These prisoners were involved in self-harm incidents where the individual would have been unlikely to survive without staff intervention.”

This level of intervention shows that prison is a very ‘public’ place as far as suicide is concerned.  If Corrections officers hadn’t intervened, the suicide rate would have averaged 26 a year – that’s 305 dead prisoners per 100,000 – 28 times the rate in the community. This doesn’t show how compassionate prison officers are; what it shows is how desperate people become when they end up in prison. The situation is so bad that 20% of inmates are actively thinking about suicide at any one time.

Corrections Department spin

Spokesmen (or women) for the Corrections Department absolve the Department of any responsibility and generally blame the prisoners when one of them commits suicide.  By way of explanation for Mr Baker’s death, Jeanette Burns said:

“Inmates are often suffering from extremely poor mental health when they arrive in prison and the care they receive in prison often far exceeds what they were accessing in the community”.

That’s typical spin from one of the Department’s leading spinsters.  It is contradicted by every study done on prison suicide including a recent report, Mental Health Treatment and Services in NZ Prisons are Inadequate which says:

“The Department of Corrections does not provide therapeutic services such as counselling to those with mild to moderate mental health conditions as it retains the view that they have a custodial role, not a therapeutic one… prisoners with mild to moderate illnesses are left to languish and to receive mental health treatment in prison, you must be intensely ill.”

A Sunday Star Times investigation in 2011 came to a similar conclusion. It found that:

“In order to get treatment in prison, you have to go really mad”.

According to a National Health Committee report only about 5% of prisoners get mental health treatment while in prison. Considering how difficult it is to kill yourself in prison, if you start going crazy but no treatment is available, hanging yourself might seem like a viable option.  According to Jeanette Burns, around 26 prisoners a year make that choice. When life is so miserable and you are that distressed, imagine how you feel if you don’t succeed.

Isoated prisonerThen you get sent to the At Risk unit where you’re not allowed visitors, there’s no TV, no radio, no books, no clothes, no blankets and the lights are turned on every 15 minutes at night so the officers can check that you’re still alive.

Now, in addition to being suicidal, you can’t get to sleep.  If you weren’t already crazy, that should drive you completely bonkers. But that’s alright – go ‘really mad’. Then you’ll be one of the 5% that’s eligible for psychiatric treatment.

Prison deaths linked to Corrections refusal to employ sufficient doctors

Three former prison doctors recently called for an inquiry into prison medical services after the death of two inmates at the Otago prison. In September, the Southland Times expressed concerns about the high suicide rate in prison: Jail health and suicide inquiry demandedMedical ethics for dummiesThese stories follow allegations that the Corrections Department discourages prison doctors from prescribing pain killers and other essential medication, that it pushes doctors into breaching their medical ethics and operates a ‘minimum services dental policy’ leaving hundreds of prisoners in pain. On this blog, it has been argued that these policies constitute deliberate ‘negligence by government officials’ and are a form of pharmacological torture.

I have now discovered that at the core of this negligence, there is a major shortage of doctors and dentists in prison. This shortage pushes nurses into the role of gatekeepers – deciding who can and who can’t see the doctor.[i]

The United Nations Minimum Rules for prisoners

Theoretically, getting to see a doctor in prison should be easy. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners state that:

“At every institution (i.e.  Prison) there shall be available the services of at least one qualified medical officer…” and “The medical officer shall have the care of the physical and mental health of the prisoners and should daily see all sick prisoners, all who complain of illness, and any prisoner to whom his attention is specially directed.“

This rule is indirectly endorsed  by Section 75 of the Corrections Act 2004 which states that prisoners are entitled to receive a standard of medical care which is “reasonably equivalent” to that which is available in the community.  In a nutshell, these rules suggest that a medical officer (i.e. doctor) should be available to prisoners seven days a week – as is the case in the community where patients can visit their GP Monday to Friday and use an after hours’ service on the weekends.

To see whether Corrections is meetings its statutory obligations, I made an OIA asking how many hours a week doctors were on duty in each prison.  I received a reply from Bronwyn Donaldson, Director of Offender Health, containing this chart which shows the number of hours that doctors are contracted to work at every prison in the country. It looks pretty much like this (below) except that it contains the figures for all 17 prisons:

Prison Doctor contracted hours Number of doctors No of prisoners
Auckland prison

18 hours

3 Part-time

681

Mt Eden

28 hours

3 Part-time

996

Springhill

18 hours

1 Part-time

1050

Hawkes Bay

10 hours

1 Part-time

666

Rimutaka

28.5 hours

4 Part-time

942

Christchurch

24 hours

2 Part-time

926

Otago

10 hours

2 Part-time

485

Invercargill

2.5 hours

1 Part-time

180

The first thing to notice is that there is not a single prison in the country where a doctor is on duty for five days in the week, let alone seven.  The greatest number of hours a doctor is available is 28 (or 3½ days) – at Rimutaka and Mt Eden – each of which has about 1,000 prisoners.  The lowest number is 2½ hours a week – at Invercargill – which has 180 prisoners. No wonder prisoners complain that nurses often prevent them from seeing the doctor – most of the time there isn’t one on duty.

The ratio of doctors to prisoners

In order for there to be an ‘equivalent’ level of care in prison, the ratio of doctors to prisoners has to be similar to the ratio of doctors available to the general public.  But Corrections doesn’t get anywhere near this. In 2010, there were 13,883 full-time general practitioners in New Zealand. This translates to 317 doctors per 100,000 of the population – or one doctor for every 315 people.   In June 2013, the prison population was 8,597. The total number of hours worked in one week by all prison doctors combined is 229 – equivalent to 5.7 doctors working 40 hours a week.  This represents an average (over all 17 prisons) of one doctor per 1505 prisoners.  In other words, prison doctors have to service nearly five times as many patients as doctors in the community.

In some prisons, the ratio is even worse than that.  Hawkes Bay prison holds 666 prisoners but has a doctor on duty for only 10 hours a week.  That gives a (full-time) ratio of one doctor per 2,664 prisoners.  Tongariro/Rangipo holds 540 prisoners but the Department has allocated a doctor for only seven hours a week.  That gives a (full-time) ratio of one doctor per 3,085 prisoners.[ii]  That doctor has to take care of nearly ten times as many patients as a doctor in the community.

The high health needs of prisoners 

Michael Tyrrell handcuffed to his hospital bed the day before he died. His daughter took the photo

These are disturbing figures – but they represent only half the picture.  This is because prisoners have much higher health needs than the general population. In the words of the National Health Committee: “A special case of health need exists in prison.” (iii) In support of this statement, the NHC reports that the lifetime prevalence of alcohol abuse and dependence among men in prison is twice that of men in the wider population.  The lifetime prevalence of drug disorders is eight times higher.  Historically, smoking rates among prisoners have been nearly three times higher for men and four times higher for women – although these figures may improve with the recent ban on cigarettes in prison.

The rate of heart disease among male prisoners is 3.3 times higher than males in the community while female prisoners have twice the rate of asthma compared with women in the community.   Rates for hepatitis C among prisoners are also much higher – 8.1% for women and 5.8% for men compared with only 0.3% in the general population.

In regard to mental illness, the prevalence of schizophrenia among prisoners is more than three time the community rate; rates of post-traumatic stress disorder are four times higher for women and five times higher for men.  Australian research suggests up to 30% of those in prison have intellectual disabilities and 50% are affected by a psychiatric disorder.  The figures are likely to be similar in New Zealand.

How many doctors are required for equivalence?

In other words, prisoners have more medical problems, more complex problems, and a much greater need for medical services than the general populace.  This means that providing the same doctor/patient ratio in prison as in the community would not actually provide an equivalent standard of care.  In order to receive equivalent care, the prison population appears to need at least twice as many doctors per person.

The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners (which has been accused of sweeping prison suicides under the Cornerstone) believes that a ratio of one (full-time) doctor to 1000 patients “presents the best working environment for GPs”.  At that level, prisoners might receive a standard of care which is superficially ‘equivalent’.  Given the extraordinary high health needs of those in prison, the ratio would probably need to be one doctor per 500 prisoners before it could be called ‘reasonably equivalent’.  In that case there would need to be 17 full time doctors available rather than the current 5.7.

Systemic breaches of the Crimes Act

In conclusion, it seems blatantly obvious that the Corrections Department is not providing anywhere near an equivalent level of care to prisoners and is therefore in breach of section 75 of the Corrections Act.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be a crime.  However, breaching section 151 of the Crimes Act is.  The Crimes Act requires anyone who has vulnerable individuals in their care:

(a) to provide that person with necessaries; and

(b) to take reasonable steps to protect that person from injury.”

Basic medical care is absolutely necessary.  Failing to employ sufficient doctors to provide this means health problems may be left unattended leading to unnecessary pain and suffering, sometimes with fatal consequences.  The death of Jai Davis and suicide of Richard Barriball in the Otago prison two years ago are a direct result of the Department’s failure to provide medical necessaries. Although the police showed no interest at the time, after I made a formal complaint to the IPCA, the police finally began  investigating these two deaths at the start of 2013. The investigation is on-going and no one in Corrections has yet been charged with a crime. Even if someone is, unless the Department doubles or trebles the number of doctors, prisoners will continue to die because of medical neglect.

Management at Corrections clearly don’t care. In her reply to my OIA, Bronwyn Donaldson, Director of Offender Health, said:

 “I can advise that the Department has contracted sufficient hours for doctors to provide care to prisoners…the Department does not have any concerns about the hours currently worked in its prisons.”


[i]  The difficulties prisoners experience accessing a prison doctor have been documented by the Ombudsman in his Investigation of the Department  of Corrections in relation to the Provision, Access and Availability of Prisoner Health Services. The negative impact this has on the relationship between nurses and prisoners is described by Dr Michael Roguski in The Effects of Imprisonment on Inmates’ Health and Wellbeing.

[ii]  The Ministry of Health says that when a doctor has more than 2000 patients, this is an ‘alert’ level indicating risk for the doctor as well as the patients.

[iii] Health in Justice, Improving the health of prisoners and their families and whānau, p 24-25.

Prison suicides swept under the Cornerstone

The suicide rate in New Zealand prisons is eleven times higher than in the general population – and since 2008, more than 75 prisoners have died . This self-destructive slaughter has much to do with high rates of mental health problems combined with poor quality psychiatric care in prison. Doctors and nurses who treat prisoners are simply unable to provide an equivalent level of care to that received by patients in the community. In 2011, the Ombudsman called this a “serious concern” and recommended responsibility for healthcare of prisoners should be removed from the Corrections Department and given to district health boards.

Prison managers don’t like that idea as it might lead to a small loss of control over their caged in kingdom. The Department would rather paper over the cracks by having its 19 prison health centres awarded Cornerstone accreditation. Cornerstone is a seal of approval granted by the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners to health and medical centres that meet a defined set of standards called Aiming for Excellence – standard for New Zealand general practice.”

The standards for ‘general practice’

In order to meet the standards, a health centre first has to meet the definition of “general practice”. The RNZCGP has 12 criteria which define general practice. The first is that the centre must provide “personal, family and community oriented comprehensive primary care…” That should rule out every prison health centre in the country – since none of them are ‘family or community oriented’. The treatment is not exactly ‘personal’ either – which medication prisoners receive is dictated by Corrections’ Medicines Policy which states that doctors are ‘discouraged’ from prescribing opiate pain killers (like morphine and tramadol), anti-anxiety medications (such as valium), sleeping pills like zopiclone and mood stabilisers like ritalin – because these are  considered drugs of abuse.

The second criterion is that the health centre must provide ‘open and unlimited access to its users…”  That should also exclude every prison health centre – since prisoners don’t have open and unlimited access to anything.   Despite the fact that prison health centres do not appear to meet any of the criteria for a ‘general practice’, five prisons in the country have been granted Cornerstone accreditation. What’s more, Corrections is aiming to have all 19 prison health centres in the country accredited in the next two and a half years.

Suicides at Otago prison

The health centre in Otago Corrections Facility (OCF) is one of the five. How did that happen when the Department’s own ranking system puts  Otago prison at the bottom of its’ performance ratings.  Health care in Otago prison is so poor that about two years ago, two prisoners died within three months of each other.  Richard Barriball was a victim of Corrections ‘discouraged’ medication policy; they took away his methadone, his tramadol and his diazepam.  In severe pain from a serious arm injury, he committed suicide a week later. The coroner said the prison  failed “to provide delivery of prescribed pain relief” and that Mr Barriball received “sub optimal care”.

Jai Davis died in OCF in February 2011.  He came in over the weekend – when the prison doctor was off duty – suspected of ‘internally concealing’ drugs.  He should have been taken directly to hospital to be examined, x-rayed, and monitored. Instead, he was taken to OCF which is 45 minutes’ drive from the nearest hospital. He was placed in the at risk unit where he was supposed to be observed every 15 minutes. No one bothered to call the doctor – the nurses just ignored him and he died two days later.

These deaths were described as suicides, so at the time, police never bothered to investigate. Soon afterwards, the Otago Daily Times reported that the health centre at the prison was given Cornerstone accreditation.  Prison nurse Jan Horne was quoted in the story saying that accreditation “put the health centre and the staff on par with other medical centres around the country”.  Yeah right! But  that’s Corrections plan for suicides in prison – get the RNZCGP to rubber stamp the process and hide the bodies under Cornerstone accreditation.

The process of accreditation

Why does the RNZCGP collude with the Corrections Department in this cover up?  I contacted the College and asked how the accreditation process works.  I was told that when the College evaluates a prison health service, no one actually talks to any prisoners; no one asks whether they are satisfied with the service; no one finds out how many complaints have been made; no one contacts the Health and Disability Commission to find out if any complaints have been investigated; no one contacts the Ombudsman to see if prisoners complain about health care more than any other aspect of prison life; no one even asks if any prisoners being treated by the prison health centre have died recently.

But there is a process – prisoners can make a written complaint. Great – except that 90% of prisoners can barely read and write.  And there is a box to put the complaints into.   Great – provided the nurses don’t throw the complaint in the bin. So there is a process – and as far as RNZCGP is concerned, that box is ticked. But prisoners are still dying. When they do, the box is a really big one – it’s called a coffin.

Officers ‘justified’ in suffocating suicidal prisoner to death – the case of Nicholas Harris

The coroner’s report into the death of Nicholas Harris in Waikeria prison last year was released recently. In the process of trying to stop him from committing suicide, six or more prison officers held him down and restrained him – till he suffocated to death.

Harris had only been in prison a few days and was being held on remand.  He had recently been released from a psychiatric hospital but his mental health problems which were not picked up by prison staff at the intake assessment. The coroner found that: “The assessment of Mr Harris fell short of the national requirement. In particular, the Principal Corrections Officer and the nurse who consulted on that assessment did not make enquiries relating to Mr Harris’ mental state.” 

On the morning of January 9, 2011 a staff member issued a “code blue” when CCTV footage showed he was planning to kill himself.  Officers entered the cell with the intention of relocating him to the “at risk unit” where he could be monitored more closely.  There were six of them.  Harris was already lying on the floor. They held him face down and applied ‘approved methods of restraint’ to control him.

The cause of death

Corrections told the coroner that “Mr Harris violently resisted the application of these holds, and additional officers were called to assist.” After a struggle that lasted about five minutes, Harris was restrained and handcuffed.  At this point, staff noticed he was not breathing.  The coroner found that the cause of death was “asphyxia of an undetermined cause, initiated either by self-strangulation or pre-existing medical condition, but in combination with restraint, with an underlying condition of morbid obesity with secondary dilated cardiomyopathy (heart disease)”. 

‘Asphyxia’ means suffocation and the coroner says it was of ‘undetermined cause’. No it wasn’t. It was caused by five or six officers sitting on top and restraining him – clearly described in the coroner’s report as a “seething mass of humanity”.  See his report here.  The coroner appears to have said the cause was ‘undetermined’ because there were health issues involved and by law, he is not allowed to apportion blame – merely to identify the circumstances of the death and make recommendations for change.

Deaths in police custody

The same limitation applies to the Independent Police Conduct Authority. It investigates complaints against the police – including deaths in police custody. It can make recommendations for change, but also has no power to prosecute.  Earlier this year, the IPCA released a report titled Deaths in Custody after 27 people died in police custody in the last ten years. Seven of them died when officers were overly vigorous in their use of restraint

Five of those who died had underlying medical conditions. Three suffered from heart disease – they collapsed and died after physically struggling against the restraint that was applied to them – just like Nicholas Harris.  Three died from positional asphyxia – being pushed down on the floor, handcuffed from behind – just like Harris; a number were arrested for violent behaviour at the time they collapsed – just like Harris. One death involved a police officer applying a neck hold to someone who was resisting arrest.

Of the 27 deaths in police custody, the IPCA said in over half of them, “the actions of the police fell short of the expected standards” and in four cases, the failings were serious. The report recommended that Police “ensure that the training provided to staff reinforces the dangers associated with restraining people in a prone position with their hands tied behind their back”. However, not one police officer was prosecuted.  Only two officers even faced disciplinary action – one received an ‘adverse report’ and the other received a written warning.

This is because the IPCA has no power to prosecute – that’s up to the police. But the police are not keen to arrest their own officers – even when the IPCA has pointed out that serious failings were involved.  Police are equally reluctant to charge Corrections officers whose failings have contributed to the death of prisoners in their care – and about 80 have suffered ‘unnatural deaths’ in the last ten years. Each death was examined by the coroner – who, of course, doesn’t blame anyone. That’s over 100 people who have died in custody in the last ten years – and not one police officer and not one corrections officer has ever been charged.

That’s unbelievable. Is it really possible that over 100 people can die in police and corrections custody in the last ten years, and not one officer is prosecuted?  Suppose 100 law-abiding citizens died in dubious circumstances from unnatural causes – and the police failed to prosecute anyone.  There would be a national outcry –  Garth McVicar would have an apoplectic fit and heads would roll.  But when 100 prisoners die – who cares?  Certainly not McVicar. It seems there’s one law for Police and Corrections officers in New Zealand – and another for the rest of us.

A sick joke

The reality is that Nicholas Harris was killed by prison officers who, theoretically, were trying to save his life. Actually they were more interested in restraining him – even though he was already lying on the floor. They entered his cell, jumped all over him and suffocated him to death – an obese, suicidal prisoner with a heart condition – in a bizarre attempt to stop him from killing himself. It sounds like a sick joke – except that it’s true. The coroner not only said this was justified, he was so unconcerned about the way Harris died, he didn’t make a single recommendation for change. He didn’t even recommend that Harris should have had a psychiatric assessment when he was admitted to prison – or that he should have been given medication to calm him down.

And yet on the coronial services page of the Justice Department website, it says in bold letters: A coroner speaks for the dead to protect the living.   The people being protected are Police and Corrections officers.

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.

Life is cheap in New Zealand prisons – the suicide of Kerry Joll

The Dominion Post has just reported the outcome of the coroner’s inquiry into the suicide of Kerry Joll. Under the headline “Prison death ‘tragic loss of life” the DomPost reveals he was found dead in his cell three months after being sent to prison for drink driving.  Sure it’s tragic – but the headline should have read: “Corrections department says saving prisoners lives is not worth the benefits”.  This in effect is what the Department said in response to a report from the coroner that the Corrections Department should make more effort to assist suicidal prisoners.

Here’s what happened. Kerry Joll had a serious alcohol and drug problem. In 2011 he was sentenced to 14 months in prison for drink driving – his 10th conviction.  Every prisoner has a brief health assessment on admission. When Joll was interviewed by prison nurses, he told them he was taking antidepressants, and that he had hepatitis C – a disease frequently associated with the use of dirty needles.  Three weeks after he was sentenced, he stopped taking his antidepressants.  No one seems to know why.  Two months later he hung himself.  The coroner said he left a note indicating he was “having difficulty dealing with his depression and was unhappy that the Corrections Department did not appear to take seriously his complaint about very loud music being played from the next door cell”.

The Corrections Department absolved itself of any responsibility for his death by claiming that when Mr Joll underwent his health assessment, he failed to reveal that he had made at least two previous attempts at suicide. But they then acknowledged that this information was already on his file but nobody in the prison medical team bothered to look at it – and the IT system used by Corrections does not bring up a red flag indicating when a prisoner is a potential suicide risk.

Not worth the benefits

The coroner appears to have recommended that the Department upgrade its IT system so that vulnerable prisoners are ‘red flagged’.  That might help, but management at Corrections don’t give a tuppeny stuff.  Their written response to the coroner  was:  “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.”

Really?  The suicide rate in New Zealand prisons is 11 times higher than the suicide rate in the community.  Twelve prisoners committed suicide in 2011 – double the figure for the previous year. The rate of failed suicide attempts was almost double the number which actually succeeded.   Twelve dead prisoners a year are not worth the benefit?

How can a Government Department get away with a cavalier attitude like that?  Look at the fuss which goes on when Government Departments inadvertently release confidential information to the public – even though nobody dies.  Look at the fuss that went on when the police broke the law to arrest Kim Dotcom – even though nobody died.  Look at the fuss the Department made when Jason Palmer became the first prison officer to die in New Zealand. The media were all over these stories – and so were the politicians.

But when 12 prisoners a year commit suicide – no fuss at all. No media interest. No political interest. Not even much interest from the Coroner.  Certainly no interest from Corrections – definitely  not worth the benefit of ‘improving our information systems’.  Life is cheap in New Zealand prisons.