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Report scathing over NZ use of solitary confinement on kids

Emma Stanford,
Publish Date
Thursday, 27 April 2017, 5:20a.m.
A scathing report has slammed New Zealand for its overuse of solitary confinement - found to be four times higher than in English prisons and in breach of international laws (iStock)

A scathing report has slammed New Zealand for its overuse of solitary confinement - found to be four times higher than in English prisons and in breach of international laws.

LISTEN ABOVE: Chief Human Rights Commissioner David Rutherford discusses the report with Nadine Higgins

Children, disabled people and the mentally unwell were also isolated at high rates, and in conditions considered "stark" and "impoverished", according to Dr Sharon Shalev, an international human rights expert.

Dr Shalev was funded by the United Nations to visit New Zealand last year at the request of the Human Rights Commission, due to ongoing concerns about the use of solitary confinement here.

Her report highlights a raft of issues, the most serious being the continued use of seclusion on mentally unwell prisoners; and the solitary confinement of children - both against international standards.

Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft said the effects of even a short time in solitary confinement can be extremely damaging to children.

"Children are developmentally vulnerable. They behave in a volatile and unpredictable way, and self-harm is always a risk."

He said there will be times where, sadly, children will be in cells for 24 hours before a court date.

"Even those said not to be a suicide risk face the real chance of doing something silly and sad," Becroft said.

Though Judge Becroft said the formalised remand option to have a child in a police cell on a long-term basis should be removed as part of the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families (Oranga Tamariki) Legislation Bill currently before Parliament.

Judge Becroft said there are certain cases where a young person may need to be held in a police cell, such as where a child needs to be moved to a facility elsewhere in the country.

These provisions will remain but the law should not allow young people to be remanded in police cells, where they sometimes stay for several days, he said.

Dr Shalev said seclusion should only be used in the most extreme of times and even then only for hours and days, not weeks or months.

Chief Human Rights Commissioner David Rutherford said he felt a feeling of shame reading the report and it's sobering to know New Zealand is like this.

He said the report also highlights the relationship between mental health and seclusion.

Mr Rutherford said we're asking our police and corrections officers to be frontline mental health workers but that's not what they're trained to be.

He said the police cells they can hold people in are not places people with mental health issues should be held.

Dr Shalev is also calling for an abolishment of what she calls a 'degrading use' of restraint chairs and beds.

"They should be removed from the menu of options available to the detaining agencies."

Key findings

• A report funded by the United Nations found New Zealand uses solitary confinement in prisons at a rate four times higher than England

• Maori and women were more likely to experience segregation

• Units used to hold children in Child, Youth and Family residences were identical to prison segregation units, which was "inappropriate"

• There were a small but persistent number of "chronic" cases where solitary confinement and restraint were used for prolonged time

• At-risk units in prisons for mentally unwell prisoners were likely contrary to international standards

• There were stark physical environments and impoverished regimes in solitary confinement units, with some having no access to a call-bell, a toilet or fresh running drinking water.

• Seclusion and restraint were not always used as options of last resort

• Some of the forms of mechanical restraint used were inherently degrading to the individual. Of particular concern was the use of restraint or tie-down beds in prisons and the use of restraint chairs in police custody.

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