Anti-prison group campaigns to ban solitary confinement

An anti-prison group is calling for solitary confinement to be banned in New Zealand, with the number of prisoners being isolated almost doubling within eight years.

People Against Prisons Aotearoa has launched a campaign to end the practice, which is defined as spending at least 20 hours a day without meaningful human contact.

One former prisoner, who wants to remain anonymous, says he spent a week locked in a cell for 23 hours each day, while serving time for meth and robbery charges two years ago.

He was sent to the management unit - known amongst prisoners as 'The Pound' - after getting into fights.

"After about 72 hours you go into a deep depression," he told Newshub.

He says The Pound also worsened his anxiety symptoms.

"Even if you try to talk to someone the words wouldn't come out properly because you're so messed up in the head, you're kind of feeling helpless and emotional."

People Against Prisons says figures released to them show use of solitary confinement in New Zealand is up 95 percent since 2009.

It says there are 300 prisoners in isolation right now.

The campaign group's figures include inmates in a mental health at-risk unit.

However the Department of Corrections didn't include those prisoners in figures it gave Newshub, saying they're considered patients who need to be kept safe from themselves.

Corrections says solitary confinement is not even used in New Zealand - but "directed segregation" is.

"Due to the risk that their behaviour presents... prisoners may at times be lawfully denied association with other prisoners," they said in a statement.

"One-hundred and eighteen prisoners out of a total population of over 10,000 were subject to directed segregation [as at June this year]."

The ex-prisoner Newshub spoke to says no matter what name you give it, some prisoners are forced to be on their own for a very long time - and he says it happens a lot.

He agrees violent inmates need to be removed at times - and that's often a relief for other prisoners - but he says locking someone in a cell alone for extended periods only makes them more violent.

"Lots of times people go to solitary confinement or the pound and end up in at-risk because they become suicidal.

"When they come out they become more violent and unmanageable."

But information provided by Corrections shows just how volatile prisons can be. Three quarters of inmates have committed violent crimes at some stage. 

Also, one-quarter of inmates are in "voluntary" segregation because of the nature of their crimes or other factors that could make them vulnerable to intimidation.

People Against Prisons Aotearoa will hold rallies across the country over the coming weeks.