Ex-inmate says prisons are violent, 'inhumane' with very little done to rehabilitate prisoners

Boy hold cage with eye sad and hopeless
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Rayssa Almeida for RNZ

A former prisoner and a family member with a relative behind bars have described the penal system as hard to navigate from the outside and dehumanising and nightmarish for those inside.

However, Corrections said it had "detailed induction processes" for new inmates to help them settle in. As well, factors such as Covid-19 were affecting some facilities' ability to allow family members to visit loved ones.

New Zealand has one of the highest incarceration rates in the developed world, although the prison population has fallen from a high of more than 10,000 in 2020 to 7728 in June 2022.

Bryan*, who is in his 40s, spent several months on remand at Rimutaka Prison in Upper Hutt in 2021.

"It was quite nightmarish. You could see that people weren't coping emotionally. And of course they can't, they are isolated from their families, they get disoriented," he said.

"There's no plants or animals in prison, it is a very inhumane environment."

Rimutaka is one of the biggest prisons in Aotearoa, housing more than 500 prisoners including those on remand as well as inmates awaiting trial or sentencing.

Bryan was facing multiple serious charges, including assault and rape - charges he disputes.

It was his first time inside and he said it was disorienting, it felt dangerous and there was little support offered for first-time offenders.

"You are suddenly in this environment where people are really struggling to cope. It's certainly not a situation where when you get put in there, someone comes up and informs you: 'This is what you need to be safe' in here and that kind of advice. You are just thrown in there and left."

There was also violence, he said.

"I've made some mistakes in how I interacted with some of the prisoners, and I was assaulted in there," Bryan said.

Anna*, 23, knew what it was like trying to contact a family member who was in prison.

Her partner was sentenced to more than four years in prison for sexual offending including indecent assault as a teenager.

She said it was confusing when he was first inside the Spring Hill facility in Waikato and there was not much help for her.

"The system is very hard to navigate. When you have loved ones that are taken to the prison, there's no communication or support from the prison, or from the government or from external agencies unless you go and find it yourself."

She said it took weeks to be able to talk to her partner when he was first behind bars.

"We didn't have any contact with him for three weeks, which was really upsetting when it's such a change of circumstances. I mean, you don't even know if your loved one is okay for an extended period of time."

Ex-inmate says prisons are violent, 'inhumane' with very little done to rehabilitate prisoners
Photo credit: Newshub

For Bryan, the paperwork and the long waits to contact family or friends made jail even more unbearable.

He said he submitted a form to authorise his mum's visit to prison, but it took more than one attempt before he saw her.

"I filled out that form about seven times and it was more than six weeks before I saw my mother."

He said privacy was lacking.

"People could look in my window and they would look while I was having a shower or going to the toilet and I would consider that a human right, that level of privacy."

He told RNZ that in order to get into safer conditions, inmates sometimes sweetened the deal.

"The whole system in prison, there's a lot of bribing and people think that New Zealand is not a society where there is a lot of bribery and it's not a corrupted society but I do think that the prisons are environments that foster that."

In 2020, a police investigation named Operation Portia began looking into suspected staff corruption inside Rimutaka Prison.

In May 2021, nine officers including the deputy director and senior management were placed on special leave then suspended for alleged misconduct, including smuggling, bullying, health and safety failures and inappropriately accessing prisoner information.

Those investigations continue.

The New Zealand Howard League is a non-profit organisation which provides free legal advice and educational, life-skills and vocational programmes inside jail.

Criminal lawyer and patron of the league Nigel Hampton QC said the system was lacking.

"They [Department of Corrections] have little concern or not enough concern for welfare, for health or cultural wellbeing, for rehabilitiation. Contact with the outside world, in particularly from whānau and family, it's so important in all aspects."

For Anna, the process was not fair on the families.

Ex-inmate says prisons are violent, 'inhumane' with very little done to rehabilitate prisoners
Photo credit: Newshub

"You are just another piece of paper on somebody's desk. You are not a real person who has a family, who is a mother, a brother or a sister. You are just a piece of paper in the workload."

For Bryan, more needed to be done to be able to rehabilitate offenders.

"I think it dehumanises people and I think it creates people who are angry. There is not enough focus on giving people life skills so that they can come out into the community in a positive way. Instead, there's this idea of punishing and that if you are in prison, you should not be feeling good."

Corrections responds

Through a statement, the Department of Corrections said resuming face-to-face visits for family and friends was a priority, but the safety of the staff, people in prisons and visitors to their sites must always be paramount.

It said it could only resume activities where it knew it would not compromise people's safety and not all prisons had been ready to resume visits at the same time, depending on the levels of Covid-19 at different sites and staffing numbers.

In-person visits were currently suspended at other sites, including Spring Hill Corrections Facility, Rimutaka Prison and Tongariro Prison.

To be able to visit a prisoner, chief custodial officer Neal Beales said applications took up to 10 days for Spring Hill and Rimutaka - while phone call applications took two to five working days.

Corrections said these processes could be delayed if the potential visitor did not complete the form promptly, or did not answer the phone when prison staff called them. Visits could also be delayed by high staff workloads.

At Spring Hill facility in Waikato, Beales said there was a backlog of caller applications, however extra support staff had been assigned to assist with them this week.

Regarding the lack of basic privacy, Beales said Corrections owed prisoners a duty of care, but inmates faced a high risk of violence, self-harm, mental health and addiction. He said some prisoners, those segregated for mental health issues for instance, were not given privacy barriers.

For first-time prisoners, Corrections said it had "detailed induction processes" for when a prisoner was received into a prison, first arrived at a specialist unit or facility, changed units or facilities, or transferred to another prison."

About physical and sexual assaults, Beales said the threat of violence was something Corrections could not eliminate entirely, but it was constantly working to ensure prisons provided the safest environment possible for staff and prisoners.

He said violence in prison was not tolerated and anyone who resorted to this behaviour would be held to account.

Beales said the Department of Corrections experienced a number of staffing challenges recently, with Covid-19, border closures and record low unemployment rates making it more challenging to recruit and retain staff.

He said Covid-19 and seasonal flu had also impacted daily staffing levels.

Operation Portia

Police said a number of matters were being assessed by the Crown solicitor in Wellington.

The Department of Corrections said the overwhelming majority of its staff acted with integrity, honesty and professionalism, and its expectation was that staff upheld the standards of behaviour in its code of conduct and complied with the law.

Beales said Corrections demanded a high standard of conduct and integrity from all employees, and if any staff did not meet the standards required, it took action.

*Names changed to protect privacy.