Solitary confinement slammed as 'completely unethical'

PAPA wants the practise of solitary confinement ended altogether. Photo credit: Getty

An anti-prison group is calling on the Government to ban solitary confinement in prisons, but the Department of Corrections says the practice isn't used in New Zealand. 

People Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA) launched a campaign in Auckland this weekend to stop the forced isolation of prisoners. 

The group defines solitary confinement as not having meaningful human contact for 20 to 24 hours a day. 

PAPA says an OIA from Corrections shows that at any one time 300 prisoners are in isolation, under this definition. This includes those deemed to be at risk of harming themselves and those put into the so-called "pound" for fighting or other violent behaviour.

It says the number of prisoners in isolation has increased 95 percent since December 2009, and that eight percent of those in isolation are isolated for more than 15 days at a time. Those of Māori and Pasifika descent, as well as women, are more likely to end up in isolation. 

PAPA says approximately one person takes their own life while in confinement each year.

"It has gone unaddressed for far too long," says spokeswoman Emilie Rakete.

"People have been allowed to grow far too complacent in their completely unethical treatment of prisoners, and we plan on ending it."

But Corrections national commissioner Rachel Leota says solitary confinement is not used in New Zealand prisons. However, for safety reasons, at times some prisoners are "segregated".

"Due to the risk that their behaviour presents to the security of the prison, the safety of others, or themselves, prisoners may at times be lawfully denied association with other prisoners or groups of prisoners," Ms Leota says.

As of June 30, 2017, 118 prisoners of the total prison population of more than 10,000 were subject to "directed segregation". Those who are segregated are given time to exercise, are allowed to see visitors, receive mail and calls, and have regular contact with staff and health services.

Corrections also said prisons are dynamic environments, and more than 70 percent of prisoners have been convicted of violent crimes. A quarter of the overall prison population are also voluntarily segregated for various reasons, including the nature of their crime or their appearance.

A former prisoner spoken to by Newshub described how being put in "the pound" for fighting made them feel depressed. They also said at times it was a relief when a bully was segregated, but ultimately it only made people more violent.

Concerns for at-risk prisoners

PAPA says some are isolated for mental health reasons, but Ms Rakete says that only makes the problem worse.

"What they need is access to meaningful counselling, meaningful psychological care, and they just are not getting that in prison. They can't get it in prison."

However, Corrections says more than 90 percent of prisoners have had a diagnosis of a mental health or substance abuse issues, and some prisoners are segregated to assess their needs. Specialist health staff work  with them, with the aim of moving them on from the unit.

Several justice experts spoken to by Newshub say the problem is only going to get worse as New Zealand's prison population increases. Some highlighted the fact that there is no clear definition of solitary confinement.

Justice reform campaigner Kim Workman says prisoners are being held in cells for extended periods to keep down costs in prisons as fewer staff are needed to control them.

PAPA plans to create a petition to ban solitary confinement in New Zealand. 

"We are going to do everything we can and anything that we need to do to make sure solitary confinement ends before someone else's life is meaninglessly taken away from them because bureaucrats at Corrections can't think of a better way of dealing with problems than locking people in boxes," Ms Rakete says.