Week in Review

Death on remand highlights prison concerns

Prisoner advocates say the sudden death of a man in Christchurch Men’s Prison last week is yet another example of how remand is an extreme form of punishment that breaches human rights and disproportionately affects Māori. Bonnie Sumner and Melanie Reid report

A man in his 20s has died while on remand in Christchurch Men’s Prison - raising calls for reform to the treatment of those held in jail before any trial or sentencing by the courts.

Police were called to the prison on the outskirts of the city on Monday, June 1. The man's death is not being treated as suspicious and has been reported to a coroner.

His whānau have flown over from Australia and are in managed isolation at an Auckland hotel waiting to organise and attend the tangihanga. They have applied for compassionate early leave from the hotel.

The young father had been held in the remand unit since January while awaiting trial.

One of the man’s friends, kaiwhakairo Damian Mackie, says the man wrote to him three days before he died asking if he could be bailed to Mackie’s address. His friend died before Mackie could respond. He says being held in remand for so long is ‘inhumane’ and that not enough has changed since a 2017 report slating conditions at the prison.

“(He) was a beautiful father, a wonderful carver. I think the fact he was in Corrections care - their policies and procedures failed him miserably.”

In 2017, the Ombudsman issued a report on an unannounced inspection of Christchurch Men’s Prison. It found multiple areas of concern in the remand section, including limited or no access to appropriate cultural services, high levels of violence and ‘unacceptable conditions’ in the At-Risk Unit - where those who are likely to self-harm or suffering mental health issues are contained, despite these concerns having been raised a number of times before.

A Newsroom story last year highlighted the burgeoning issue of a rapidly increasing remand prisoner population, with prison reform organisation Howard League’s spokesperson Mike Williams saying it was not fair, or just, to keep people waiting on remand for extended periods.

Last year there were 410 remand and 514 sentenced prisoners held in Christchurch Men’s Prison. Ministry of Justice projections show the average time in custodial remand was expected to reach 85 days in 2028. The Christchurch Men’s Prison current average is 91 days. The man who died had been 126 days on remand.

Remand prisoners are not eligible for rehabilitation programmes while in custody.

Forty-two people died of unnatural causes - overwhelmingly suicides - in New Zealand prisons between 2010 and 2016.

Remand not fit for purpose

Remand prisoners make up more than one third of the prison population and must be housed separately to the sentenced prison population.

The country’s remand population grew by more than 25 percent last year and has doubled in the past decade, with the number of remand prisoners expected to overtake those serving a custodial sentence by 2026.

Changes in family violence and bail laws, as well as an increase in the frequency of court events and the time between them, have been blamed for the ballooning numbers and the length of time some are kept on remand, which is designed to house prisoners for short periods.

According to data released in November last year, the majority of remand prisoners - 5500 - were there for two weeks or less, however almost 1500 were held on remand for six months or more. The man who died had been on remand for more than four months. Courts are responsible for how long someone remains on remand.

Prisoner advocate and co-founder of People Against Prisons Aotearoa, Emilie Rākete, says remand is the most dangerous part of prison and the place where prisoners are most likely to commit suicide. She believes the fact the man had been held on remand for so long is part of a systemic problem.

“We have a crisis. The reality is we are putting too many people in prison. One of the symptoms of this disorder is the enormous population being held on remand. That is a problem that we are putting so many people into remand, but conditions in remand itself are some of the most strenuous, some of the most damaging that we have in New Zealand’s prisons.”

“People have very little access to paid employment, to psychological counselling, to rehabilitative programmes, education, job training. All of this stuff that we know contributes to rehabilitation, that helps people live normal lives despite what the prison system does to them, is almost completely unavailable to people who are being held on remand.”

Mackie has experienced the conditions in Christchurch Men’s Prison’s remand unit and says they were ‘terrible’.

“Remand was disgusting. It’s a concrete jungle with concrete walls and no support services – there was only a clergyman, and not everybody believes in that. And a doctor who would come and hand out meds like lollies – antidepressants and tramadol.”

He describes the conditions as Victorian and no different to those experienced by his tūpuna from Parihaka when they were arrested for rising up against the Crown and exiled to Ripapa Island near Lyttleton Harbour. He says when he was on remand inmates were locked in their cells for 22 hours a day, with a small concrete courtyard shared between around 40 inmates for their two hours outside.

“The scariest thing is if you’re not feeling well and plead self-harm they will put you in the At-Risk Unit – they take all your clothes off, put you in straitjacket, put you in a padded room, give you a bag to shit in and watch you until the antidepressants have kicked in. That’s how they dealt with it. So you’re scared as hell, you don’t want to say anything.”

It was the first and only time Mackie had been to prison and he was shocked at the conditions. He was held on remand for three and a half months and says he pleaded guilty just so he could be sentenced and be put somewhere else.

“You go through a phase of shock, then acceptance, then just survival. So I pleaded guilty to a summary of facts where key points were incorrect so I could get out of there, but you just have to take it on the chin. What happened with me - and a lot of the guys who are waiting 12 to 24 months for a trial - is we go ‘I’ll just plead guilty to get out of remand'.”

He says he doesn’t hold anybody to blame for what happened to him, but inmates need support and resources to improve outcomes.

“I was accountable for my offending. But a lot of guys in there – they lack basic life skills and there’s nobody in there to tautoko them through this, to help them think proactively. They just get hardened. One of the most poignant things I noticed in there were these guys who would just change – they would change their voice, change the way they held their bodies, to be staunch. Just to survive. Corrections don’t empower, they dehumanise.”

Prison and courts failed his friend, and he wants Māori to be able to take control of their own destiny.

“I doubt he would have said ‘I’m not feeling well’ to anyone. There’s no trust between Corrections and prisoners to be able to sit down and say 'I don’t feel good'. Enough is enough. We need to have the right to be able to look after our own tāne if they are in remand, until we get to a point when Māori have sovereignty over our own destiny.”

Māori are disproportionately affected by the justice system, making up a little more than half of the prison population. Māori are also five times more likely than non-Māori to commit suicide.

In response to questions from Newsroom, Jo Harrex, prison director for Christchurch Men’s Prison, said: "Every death in custody is a tragedy, and our thoughts are with the man’s family and friends. Prisoners and staff were also affected by the man’s death and provided with support.

"All deaths in custody are referred to the Coroner for investigation and determination of cause of death. For all deaths in custody, there is also an investigation by the independent Corrections Inspectorate. As the death remains subject to investigation, and the Coroner is yet to determine the cause, we are limited in the amount of detail that we are able to provide."

Harrex outlined a number of ways they say they have changed the remand environment at Christchurch Men’s Prison since the 2017 report. These include a national review of At-Risk Units (ARU), $11.6 million over four years to develop a new ‘whole of prison’ model for care of at-risk prisoners, and considering the use of CCTV and prisoner privacy in cells in the ARU.

“Physical Activities Officers were also established in remand units to increase the options available for remand prisoners. Recent initiatives include the introduction of tikanga and cultural programmes, te reo lessons, Open Polytechnic classes, literacy and numeracy courses, greater access to library services and physical activities. Kaiwhakamana, cultural supervisors and specialised Māori cultural support workers are also available to remand prisoners,."

Harrex added that remand prisoners were not routinely locked up 22 hours each day, but, “in response to Covid-19 restrictions and in order to ensure prisoners were able to maintain appropriate physical distancing when spending time outside of their cells, we were operating reduced unlock hours in some units at alert Levels 3 and 4.”

Under Level 2, Harrex says the prison had been able to increase unlock hours, but did not say what those hours were. “All remand units also have twice weekly time for physical activity in a larger open air field, instead of a yard.

Part of a bigger problem

Work conducted by University of Auckland prison sociologist Ti Lamusse, published at The Spinoff, shows that in 2018, for the first time on record, the majority of people remanded in custody were not sentenced to imprisonment.

“In other words, when someone is remanded in custody, they have either not been found guilty of any offence, or they haven’t been sentenced to imprisonment. This means that, according to the data given to me, 50.1% of people who were locked up in prison before they were sentenced were not ultimately sentenced to prison.”

Lamusse says that it is a ‘profound injustice’ that half the remand population are not convicted of a crime or sentenced to imprisonment, undermining 'a fundamental principle of our democracy.'

“As with basically all issues in the New Zealand criminal justice system, Māori experience this injustice at a disproportionate rate. Other data released to me shows that, in 2018, Māori made up 54 percent of the people who were remanded in custody but against whom there was no “proved outcome”. That same year, 3093 Māori people were locked up even though it was decided there was not enough proof that they had committed the alleged offence.”

Emma Maurice is a PhD student and public intellectual specialising in indigenous philosophy. She is also Mackie’s partner, and says when they got the call about his friend they were both heartbroken.

“This is a dire situation. Prison is killing a number of Māori. It is a shameful scar on Aotearoa. In 2017, a Waitangi Tribunal report about prisoner reoffending came out and the guy who ran Corrections said it was a great report, we accept the recommendations, and we’ve got some work to do - we’ve got to reach out and liaise with iwi. Then it’s 2020 you’ve got someone who just died in your care whilst on remand. Nothing has improved.”

She says there are plenty of community organisations and programmes in Christchurch that could help remand prisoners, but they don’t have access.

“They can’t get into the prisons, particularly remand, to deliver programmes, and to facilitate one-on-one counselling. Because of that, someone has died. For me it would be amazing if we could empower local community groups, hapū groups that want to be able to do things for themselves. Yes, [Christchurch Men’s Prison] now has a Māori relations manager, but he has done nothing to prevent recidivism and nothing to prevent the death of this young man.”

Maurice says when half of prisoners end up being released back into society straight from remand, it is incumbent on Corrections to make sure they are provided the skills necessary to help them reintegrate.

The government committed $12.1m in this year’s Budget towards services for those on remand and recently released offenders under an initiative dubbed Hōkai Rangi, that it says, “will provide people remanded in custody (or at risk of being remanded) greater opportunities to achieve positive change earlier in their justice system journey, reducing additional harm and return to custody. This initiative aims to provide a reduction in the use of remand in custody, improving public safety and justice and social results for those moving through the system.”

But Emilie Rākete says until systemic change happens, the government is just reinventing the wheel.

“Hōkai Rangi is a tokenistic, racist insult to try to cover up the fact the Department of Corrections absolutely destroys the mana of Māori communities. We put more than $1b every year into the prison system, so $12m is an inconceivably small amount of money towards solving a problem which is fundamentally caused by the fact we put too many people in prison.”

Rākete says putting people in prison and holding them in remand doesn’t solve social problems or prevent more violence, but instead makes these problems worse.

“We’re trying to improve the bucket when we need to turn off the flow of water. Prison makes all of these problems in our society worse while harming the people we catch up in it. It’s absolutely unconscionable that no action has been taken on this by the Government. They’ve had every opportunity to do so and they’ve ignored all of them and now someone is dead.”

According to the Office of the Chief District Court Judge, Judge John Walker is working on an interagency project to reduce remand prisoner numbers.

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