A new United Nations report has criticised New Zealand's use of isolation and restraints in prisons and mental health facilities.
It found prisoners in New Zealand were four times more likely to be placed in solitary confinement than those in England and Wales, and New Zealand's use of the practice was in breach of international standards. Children, people with disabilities and the mentally unwell were all kept in isolation rooms, and women and Māori were secluded at higher rates. Particularly alarming was the use of tie-down chairs and beds; and the use of isolation rooms for children in Child Youth And Family Facilities which were identical to those used in prisons.
The report, called Thinking Outside the Box? A Review of Seclusion and Restraint Practices in New Zealand was paid for by the United Nations, requested by the Human Rights Commission, and authored by Sharon Shalev, an international human rights expert.
In an op-ed about her findings, Shalev wrote that "Extreme forms of mechanical restraint, in particular restraint beds and restraint chairs, were still in use in a number of prisons and police custody suites."
"In my view, these forms of restraint are inherently degrading and their continued use could violate international prohibitions," she said.
She found that last year there were 16,370 recorded instances of segregation in prisons alone, and 62 per cent of those segregated were Māori or Pacific Islanders.
Shalev noted that isolation cells had "obvious attractions" for stretched or under-resourced agencies which were short on staff or beds. "However, convenience and tight budgets are not good enough reasons to expose vulnerable people to the known dangers of solitary confinement," she continues.
"There is no justification for keeping a prisoner tied to a restraint bed every night over 36 consecutive nights, or for holding a man with several disabilities in conditions of semi-isolation for years on end."
Speaking to RNZ, Corrections chief custodial officer Neil Beales said in the last three years, only 12 of 7000 inmates in at-risk units had been restrained in tie-down beds. If they had not done so, he said, those people would be dead.
"When you are watching a person rip open their own wounds, shove faeces into those wounds, shove plastic forks into those wounds, bite through their own skin, and when you've exhausted every other avenue in order to prevent from doing that—what are you left with?" said Beales.
"[Prison directors] have got to ensure that, when they come back in the morning, that person is still going to be alive."
Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson told VICE some of the findings of the report were "distressing".
"Being secluded can be a terrifying and traumatising experience, and it is too often used as a punishment. Seclusion has no therapeutic value and can often make people more unwell," he said.
"I hope [the report] will motivate us as a country to urgently address the issue of seclusion. We know Maori are secluded four times more often than non-Maori, for longer periods; this is a national disgrace."
"Seclusion is a barbaric and ineffective practice and we should be working toward eradicating its use throughout New Zealand," he said, but noted that if the practice were to be phased out, more resource was needed. There were still some people who felt that seclusion was the only option for keeping individuals and staff safe, he said, and "we need a nation-wide commitment to putting money, training and resources into alternatives to seclusion… We have some way to go before we reach the right level of investment and commitment".
Chief Human Rights Commissioner David Rutherford said in a statement that while the report makes for sobering reading, the focus should be on its recommendations, and how to reduce use of seclusion in New Zealand.
"The report indicates that seclusion and restraint may not always be used as a last resort option, as required by international human rights law, and several of the rooms and units being used do not provide basic fixtures such as a call-bell to alert staff, a toilet, or fresh running water," he said. "These matters are particularly concerning, given what seems to be New Zealand's high propensity to use seclusion and restraint. The focus must now be on improving the situation."
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