Prisoners' treatment humiliating and cruel

Depressed and suicidal prisoners in New Zealand are placed in so-called 'at risk' cells where they are deprived of sleep and subjected to humiliating searches

Kim Dotcom recently spent a month on remand in Mt Eden prison after the police agreed to act on behalf of US authorities. The police took away his cars and froze his bank accounts. In prison, Corrections took away his blankets and deprived him of sleep – they woke him up every two hours. Dotcom said he was treated like a convicted criminal – as if depriving convicted criminals of sleep was a legitimate practice.

Sleep deprivation cells

It’s not legitimate. Sleep deprivation was declared illegal under Article 3 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. New Zealand signed the convention in 1985. Then there’s Section 5 of the Corrections Act (2004) which requires the Department to ensure prisons are“operated in accordance with rules (and regulations) in this Act and… are based, amongst other matters, on the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.”  Rule 31 states: “All cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments shall be completely prohibited.”

The management of Corrections ignore all this – sleep deprivation is a deliberate and daily practice in New Zealand prisons. What’s worse, it’s reserved primarily for those who are least able to cope with it – prisoners who are suicidal and psychologically vulnerable. The Corrections Department even has special cells for suicidal prisoners with camera surveillance 24/7 so the prisoner can be observed at all times – including on the toilet. Anything the prisoner might use to commit suicide is taken away; they’re not allowed underwear, clothes, sheets or blankets – in case they rip them up to use as a rope. All they get to wear is a canvas tunic. It’s so tough it can’t be ripped – and it’s very uncomfortable.

Throughout the night, the lights come on automatically every 30 minutes, so staff can see if the prisoner is doing anything – other than sleeping. Euphemistically, the Department calls these ‘at risk’ cells. In reality, they’re sleep deprivation cells and Corrections has 160 of them.

The 'naked squat'

Sleep deprivation is not the only breach of UN Rule 31. Another is ‘the naked squat’. I heard about this from a prisoner who spent a weekend in these so-called ‘at risk’ cells. Immediately after being sentenced, he was taken to the receiving office at Rimutaka Prison. There he was told to strip naked in front of four officers, and crouch down so the cheeks of his bum spread apart. Two officers got down and looked up his anus – to see whether he had a cell phone, drugs or other contraband hidden up there. Then he had to stand and hold up his penis and scrotum so they could see if he was hiding anything under his genitals. Finally they looked under his armpits and into his mouth.

After this inspection, the prisoner was asked: “How are you feeling?” He replied: “A bit delicate.” That was enough to warrant a trip to the ‘at risk’ cells. Two officers escorted him, and handed him over to another set of officers – who told him to strip off once again. He protested, saying he’d just been searched five minutes ago. But it’s in the rules. All prisoners being admitted to the 'at risk' cells have to be searched. So once again, he stripped off and did ‘the naked squat’ while more officers examined every orifice.

In the morning, he was taken to the shower block – where pretty much everything he did could be observed. Once brought back to his cell, he had to do the squat again. Then he was taken to a different cell to have breakfast. He asked why? No one seemed to know. After breakfast, he was brought back and once again, the officers examined his anus and genitals. The same thing happened after lunch and after dinner. He was required to perform ‘the naked squat’ every time he came back to his cell. In the course of one weekend, he had to spread his cheeks 11 times.

Another extremely vulnerable prisoner was kept in these 'at risk' cells for three weeks. Imagine that – anxious and suicidal, nothing to do, no TV, no distractions for three weeks on end – except the lights turning on and off all night; and nothing to look forward to except the intense embarrassment of performing the 'naked squat' in front of prison officers four times a day. Don’t forget, this is all happening in a secure environment where the prisoner has no contact with the outside world – where it is simply not possible to find anything to put up your arse, except perhaps a piece of soap from the shower.  But why would you want to do that? This prisoner endured this indignity four times a day for three weeks – that’s 84 times.

Final analysis

The ideal treatment for depressed or suicidal patients would generally include emotional support, counselling and/or antidepressant medication. For such patients, getting a good night’s sleep is paramount. Treatment should focus on improving the prisoner’s state of mind.

What happened to these prisoners is an appalling abuse of power – and a breach of the Corrections Act and United Nations Conventions. Dotcom was right -- he was tortured. When this sort of abuse happens in other countries, Amnesty International is quick to point out the perpetrators. Meanwhile, the abuse of sleep-deprived prisoners in New Zealand has been going on for years. 

Roger Brooking is spokesperson for the Howard League for Penal Reform