Prison watchdog investigates treatment of young people in custody

The conditions and experiences of young inmates are being examined.
The conditions and experiences of young inmates are being examined. Photo credit: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Story by Soumya Bhamidipati of RNZ

A prison watchdog is investigating how young people are treated in custody.

The Office of the Inspectorate is examining the conditions and experiences of young inmates, with one in 10 prisoners under 25 years old.

The inspection, which began in September, will assess whether Corrections is acting in line with New Zealand law and international best practice.

Inspectors will speak to young people at each of the country's 18 jails, as well as their families and staff.

Chief inspector Janis Adair said changes to justice laws and policies in the last five years had affected young prisoners - including a 2019 update that saw 17-year-olds included in the youth jurisdiction.

Other significant events, including the closure of Hawke's Bay Regional Prison's youth unit after a riot, had also impacted how young people were managed in prison, Adair said.

"On average, approximately 80 percent of young men in Corrections' custody remain accommodated in mainstream facilities rather than the youth units, mostly in Mount Eden Corrections Facility and Spring Hill Corrections Facility," she said in the inspection's terms of reference.

"Given the small number of females under the age of 18 years and under the age of 20 years, there has never been a dedicated youth unit in a women's facility, meaning they are placed in a mainstream facility."

Research over the past two decades had established young people typically did not fully transition to adulthood until their mid-20s, Adair said, and the investigation would look for examples of good practice and areas for improvement.

"The purpose of this inspection is to investigate how Corrections considers and responds to the unique developmental needs, challenges and opportunities for young people under 18 years old and young adults aged 18-25 years in its custody," she said.

"The inspection will also be informed by evidence of custodial environments and practices that cause immediate and long-term harm to young people and young adults in adult custodial facilities as well as effective practices for this population if in custody that improve behaviours, attitudes, and long-term outcomes."

The findings are due to be published mid-year.