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Report on an unannounced inspection of Christchurch Men's Prison

Prisoners / Corrections
Peter Boshier
Issue date:

Christchurch Prison is one of New Zealand’s larger prisons, and the largest in the South Island. The make-up of the prisoner population in New Zealand has been changing recently with increased numbers of remand prisoners, which has contributed to unprecedented prisoner numbers. This was reflected in the population in Christchurch Prison, where at the time of inspection 33[1] percent of prisoners were on remand and 30 percent were experiencing prison for the first time.

Inspectors noted areas of good practice in the way prisoners were received into lawful custody; procedures for access to telephones and visitor approvals were effective; efforts to maintain standards of decor were having a positive effect on the environment; and staff engagement and interaction with young offenders was positive. Health care services for prisoners were reasonably good with some impressive work being undertaken by the clinical in-reach nurse.

Initial impressions of a safe and secure environment were not entirely borne out in the inspection.

Inspectors were reminded by managers and staff during the course of the inspection that staff safety, security and control were priorities. It was therefore concerning to discover that force had been used on prisoners and had not been recorded in the Use of Force Register, and that the Prison had not complied with processes for the management of prisoners suspected of concealing articles.

I share Corrections’ disappointment, expressed in their media release of 15 April 2017, about a report into the security breach at Christchurch Men’s Prison in June 2016, that standard policies and procedures were not being followed. The Prison Director was to provide assurance that all staff and managers are aware of their obligations in regards to incident reporting in accordance with the Prison Operations Manual.

The report into the security breach also included recommendations that the Prison Director review the method by which staff provide meals to the prisoner population; and review the employment of prisoners holding influential positions such as the kit locker, servery worker and other internal employment, to ensure that they are the correct prisoners in these roles and that all prisoners are receiving their appropriate entitlements.

During the inspection, prisoners were asked by Inspectors to complete questionnaires about their experience in the Prison. The information gathered as a result of these questionnaires provides indicative contextual information for my Inspectors’ observations during the inspection.

 A considerable number of questionnaire respondents[2] said they had no confidence in the complaints system, which is similar to the findings in other recent prisoner surveys undertaken by the OPCAT team.

Thirty-seven percent of the prisoners who completed the questionnaire identified as Māori or Māori/Pakeha. There was limited provision of services to meet their cultural needs; nearly seventy percent of questionnaire respondents reported difficulties in accessing cultural services.

There were areas of the Prison that experienced high levels of violence. Sixty-seven percent of questionnaire respondents stated that they had felt unsafe in the Prison, an increase of 16 percent from our 2012 survey. Over 60 percent of questionnaire respondents said they had been bullied at some time in the Prison. Nearly half of all questionnaire respondents—49 percent—said they had been assaulted, but only 27 percent reported the matter to staff. 

Conditions for prisoners in the At-Risk Unit were unacceptable. The environment does not provide suitable accommodation for distressed individuals assessed as likely to commit self-harm or suicide, or who may be suffering serious mental health issues. The Prison’s efforts to improve the environment and treatment were superficial. Corrections had committed to addressing concerns and criticisms made in my report ‘A Question of Restraint’.[3] It has been disappointing to note a lack of any real progress in improving conditions or treatment for mentally unwell and suicidal people.

The Management Unit was similarly unfit for any purpose other than the secure containment of prisoners. I note that there were plans to redevelop both facilities, and expect that not only new facilities but also new approaches will be developed in line with modern thinking and international best practice.

The regime for remand prisoners remains inadequate. It was particularly disappointing to note that opportunities and conditions for remand prisoners at the Prison had not significantly improved since the 2013 visit to New Zealand of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Periods of unlock had not changed and access to constructive activities was limited.

The regime for high-security prisoners was largely lacking in imagination and impoverished. Prisoners spent too long locked up and had access to few meaningful activities when unlocked. Generally, low-security prisoners enjoyed longer unlocks, access to employment, and interventions to address offending.

Coordination of access to such rehabilitative provision is one purpose of the case management system, which at Christchurch Men’s Prison was a highly controlled process. The reported focus was on meeting deadlines for compiling reports, which appeared to be of limited utility in informing the range of constructive and purposeful activities on offer. Scheduling of courses and subsequent progression following successful completion were acknowledged as areas for improvement, which were also identified during the UN Subcommittee’s visit in 2013.

It was disappointing to note that a number of issues that were identified during the course of this inspection, not least the conditions for remand prisoners and the management of prisoners in the At-Risk Unit, had been raised before. Concerns raised in prisoner surveys in 2012 and 2013 remained unaddressed, leading to prisoner frustration and cynicism. Corrections’ Well Functioning Site Assessment carried out in February 2014 identified a number of areas for improvement that had not been progressed. Some recommendations made in the summary report into the security breach in June 2016 regarding distribution of prisoners’ food had not been fully embedded into practice.

We will continue to monitor and report on the Prison’s progress with follow-up visits.

[1]     Based on the Prison data made available at the time of the inspection. Thirty-three percent of questionnaire respondents identified as remand.

[2]     Eighty-two percent - the design of the questionnaire was such that it would have included complainants who had not themselves made a complaint.  The questionnaire has been revised to provide clearer statistics on this matter in the future.

[3]     ‘A question of restraint – Care and management for prisoners considered to be at risk of suicide and self-harm’, Office of the Ombudsman, March 2017.

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