Lawyer says Corrections can't blame COVID-19 for overuse of solitary confinement revealed in damming report

A damning report by the Prison Inspectorate has found New Zealand prisons are unlawfully using solitary confinement.  

The report looked into three high-security units at Auckland prisons and found what it calls a "grim regime of only unlocking prisoners from their cells for one hour a day or for some only every second day".   

Corrections blamed the failings on staff shortages in the aftermath of COVID-19, but barrister Amanda Hill told AM that excuse "doesn't hold water".   

The report found 24 men were only let out of their cells every second day, which is in breach of the Corrections Act.   

"The report found over those three units there was a period of up to nine months where being unlocked only every second day occurred," Hill said.   

That is a breach of the Corrections Act which says at a minimum a prisoner must be unlocked for one hour every day for exercise in the fresh air if the weather permits.   

"So, by only doing it every second day there was a breach of the Corrections Act on those days that they weren't unlocked."  

Hill said the Act is based on international regulations and not following them could lead to a breach of the Bill of Rights Act.    

"There has been a breach of the Act for these men for a really long time, and that could lead to the breach of the Bill of Rights Act."  

Hill said while Corrections says COVID is to blame, that is no longer an acceptable excuse.   

"There was and still is a critical shortage of staff in the prison system. Corrections will also say there is a hangover from COVID-19, but I don't think that excuse holds water anymore. I don't believe COVID can be used as an excuse for what has happened in Auckland Prison."  

Hill also pointed out that overusing solitary confinement can have severe consequences.   

"Solitary confinement has been shown to cause long-standing psychological harm to people. It causes depression, anxiety and an inability to cope in normal situations. Over time people stop functioning and the report talks about men not wanting to come out of their cells and barricading themselves in. So it has a massive psychological impact on people."  

Hill said this isn't about being sympathetic to prisoners, it's about ensuring they're getting their basic legal rights.   

"We can't put people in prison and then harm them and then expect them to come out of prisoner and be better."  

Corrections Deputy Commissioner Neil Beales told RNZ the units in the report housed some of the most difficult and dangerous prisoners.   

Beales said a severe lack of staffing made it hard to carry out daily requirements.   

"Maximum security prisoners have a high propensity for violence and are known to behave unpredictably and act without warning, which means a higher number of staff with more experience are required to carry out daily operations in these units."  

He told RNZ the number of staff leaving after COVID, caught Corrections by surprise.   

"We had to try and manage an entire network, at the same time with a growing prison population.  

"We know that long-term segregation has a detrimental, but we also know unlocking units unsafely without the right amount of staff, puts people equally at danger, probably even more so.  

"Not all the prisoners were maximum security, I grant you that, but many were," he told RNZ.   

He added staffing levels were higher now and acknowledged the report and its recommendations.