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.