“Cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment” of prisoners

Dealing with difficult prisoners intent on self harm is challenging, but basic human rights are a fundamental requirement for our prisons.

An investigation by the Ombudsman is causing a stir, and so it should.

Report: A question of restraint


In 2007, the Ombudsmen were designated as one of the National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) under the Crimes of Torture Act (COTA), with responsibility for examining and monitoring the general conditions and treatment of detainees in New Zealand prisons.

This report details observations and findings relating to prisoners who have been considered at risk of suicide and self-harm, who are managed in At-Risk Units (ARUs) in New Zealand prisons; and focuses on the comprehensive inspections of five prison sites.

Summary of findings

  • Of the 18 prisons across the country, 14 have a designated ARU. At-Risk cells at best can be described as sparsely furnished rooms, which are constantly monitored by a live camera-feed, including the unscreened toilet. Staff of either sex, in the course of their work, can observe At-Risk prisoners in various states of undress. Prisoners’ clothing is removed on admission to ARUs and replaced with anti-rip gowns to minimise opportunities for self-harm.
  • Routines within ARUs are similar to the regimes within management/separates units.1 At-Risk prisoners are placed in isolation with limited interaction and therapeutic activities.
  • RU paperwork and directed segregation (for medical oversight) is not always fully completed and lacks specificity and personalisation.
  • Training for staff working in ARUs is basic.
  • Staff interactions with At-Risk prisoners are limited.
  • There were incidences of At-Risk prisoners being restrained on tie-down beds by their legs, arms and chest over prolonged periods.
  • There were incidences of At-Risk prisoners being restrained in waist restraints with their hands cuffed behind their backs.
  • We discovered incidences of tie-down beds and possibly waist restraints being used for behaviour modification purposes at some sites.
  • Prisons were not following their own procedures in respect of the application of mechanical restraints.
  • The interface between Corrections and Regional Forensic Psychiatric Services appears not to be working as effectively as it could. Gaps in service provision were evident.

I consider that the use of the tie-down bed and/or waist restraints in the circumstances of Prisoners A, B, C, D and E2 amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment for the purpose of Article 16 of the Convention against Torture. Furthermore, I believe the ability of prison staff to access footage of prisoners undertaking their ablutions constitutes degrading treatment or punishment under Article 16 of the Convention.

Corrections are in part defending what they did as necessary to protect prisoners from their own actions.

RNZ: Call to prosecute guards over tied-down inmate