Some prisoners at New Zealand’s only maximum security prison are being left locked in their cells for up to three days at a time – violating human rights.
Lawyers, the Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International are concerned for the welfare of inmates at Auckland prison and are urging Corrections to address the issue.
Also known as Pāremoremo, Auckland prison houses the country’s most dangerous criminals.
No prisoners in the extreme risk unitsuch as the Christchurch terrorist, are affected.
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Lawyer Amanda Hill is acting for a handful of inmates, across a number of units which are affected.
She said Corrections are failing to meet basic requirements and daily minimum entitlements of inmates who are allowed one hour a day out of their cells.
The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela rules) require that all prisoners have a minimum of one hour of outdoor exercise per day.
Te Kāhui Tika Tangata the The Human Rights Commission has been notified of multiple instances where prisoners have been prevented from taking at least one hour outside their cells.
They also haven’t had visitors since August 2021. Under the Corrections Act, inmates are entitled to receive at least one private visit a week, for a minimum of half an hour – either via video link or in person.
Women at an Auckland prison have been routinely confined to their cells for periods of up to 29 hours at a stretch – well outside a law which says they should get at least one hour out of their cells a day. (Video first published in May 2020.)
Hill said this has been occurring regularly since August 2022, with inmates being locked up for three days at a time and unlocked on the fourth day.
“Conditions for maximum security prisoners are already really severe, but when those basic requirements aren’t adhered to it opens the gate to all sorts,” Hill said.
“This is psychologically harmful.”
Corrections said the problem is staffing.
Chief custodial officer Neil Beales said like many other agencies and businesses, Corrections has experienced a number of “inter-connected challenges” with Covid-19 stressors, border closures and unemployment rates making it more challenging to recruit and retain staff.
“While we are making a concerted effort to recruit, retain and train staff, we have acknowledged that we have been facing staffing shortages across our entire network.”
Beales said prisoners in maximum security units required a number of staff to deliver all minimum entitlements to ensure the safety and security of staff and prisoners.
“If there are less staff than required, the unit will operate on an alternate regime to accommodate minimum entitlements so the same group of prisoners are not always affected.”
Emma Priest, criminal barrister and Convener of the Parole Committee, ADLS, echoed Hill’s comments and concerns, saying there was an impact of being locked in a cell for days on end.
“I have seen many men suffer psychological trauma as a result,” Priest said.
She said some men had panic attacks in court.
“Or the flight/flight/freeze response. The men are overwhelmed by the bright lights, the number of people, the movement and the noise.”
Prisoners are unable to meaningfully engage with lawyers or the court process because of this.
“These are minimum entitlements, not aspirational goals. They are there to treat people humanely and with some basic respect. They are not negotiable.
“Everything has to be done to ensure that prisoners get their basic human rights met. Social deprivation is cruel.”
Priest said this was a breach of prisoners’ basic rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.
“There needs to be an absolute commitment to get in staff, whether it be from the army, police or first security to help ensure that these minimums are being met. Anything less is an indictment on us as a society. Its shameful,” Priest said.
“This is an ongoing breach and its compounding,” Hill said.
Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt said he is very concerned for the welfare of prisoners.
“This is a human rights issue that Corrections must urgently address and assure does not happen again at Pāremoremo or at any prison in Aotearoa.”
Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier is monitoring the situation.
Boshier acknowledged there are circumstances when minimum entitlements may be denied, but said the Corrections Act made it clear that this can only be for the limited reasons set out and “for a period of time that is reasonable in the circumstances”.
“I expect Corrections to make every effort to mitigate the impact of operational challenges, such as staffing, on unlock hours and minimum entitlements, in line both with the Act and international human rights obligations.”
Amnesty International Aotearoa’s Lisa Woods said denying people minimum entitlements in prison can do serious harm to their well-being.
Woods said Corrections has been using the “excuse” of short staffing for “far too long”.