Internet tycoon Kim Dotcom recently spent a month in the Auckland Central Remand prison (ACRP) after the US government persuaded New Zealand police that his file sharing company, Megaupload, was infringing US copyright laws. ACRP is run by Serco, an international conglomerate which runs prisons in a number of countries including New Zealand. In Britain, Serco prisons have been criticised for 'institutional meanness' and forcing prisoners to sleep in toilets. In 2011, the company was criticised after the suicide of a 14 year old boy who was mistreated by staff in one of its British prisons. Serco also runs the overcrowded Australian Federal Detention Centre for asylum seekers at Christmas Island. In November 2010, 230 asylum seekers in the island prison began a hunger strike; 20 prisoners sewed their lips together and one Iraqi Kurd, a man in his 30s attempted to commit suicide. In 2011, the New Zealand Government allowed Serco to take over the management of ACRP which is primarily used to hold prisoners on remand.
14,000 New Zealanders are sent to prison on remand every year. Mr Dotcom was also on remand, denies he has done anything illegal, and appears to have a good case. But according to the NZ Herald, he was treated like a convicted criminal. He reports that on the first night he wasn’t allowed blankets or toilet paper and was woken up every two hours. The mattresses used by prisoners are really thin (about two inches) and the beds are solid concrete. Most prisoners find them uncomfortable – let alone someone as big as Dotcom. Waking someone up every two hours is deliberate sleep deprivation – which Dotcom said felt like torture.
The Minimum Prison Standards
Sleep deprivation is no joke. In fact it is an enhanced torture technique used by the CIA because it leaves no scars or visible signs. When taken to extremes, it drives the victim insane. Sleep deprivation was declared illegal under Article 3 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment which New Zealand signed in 1985. Other New Zealand legislation covering the treatment of prisoners is contained in the Corrections Act passed in 2004. Section 5 of the Act requires the Department to ensure facilities 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.”
Sleep deprivation is not the only inhumane treatment Dotcom was subject to. He was also taken to and from court in a prison van – chained to a metal seat inside a small cage. This aggravated a back injury. He told the NZ Herald that one trip caused shockwaves of pain up his back, after which he required treatment in the prison medical unit. He couldn’t walk so Serco staff dragged him to the unit on a blanket where he was given Paracetamol and a wheel chair.
Violence and suicide in NZ prisons
Despite such incidents, the Corrections Department would have us believe that NZ prisons are safe and humane. Let’s look at the facts. The number of inmates with gang affiliations has doubled in the past five years and, what a surprise – the number of prisoners attacking other inmates has also doubled. In May 2010, James Palmer (an American) became the first prison officer to be killed in a New Zealand prison after he was punched by an inmate and cracked his skull on the concrete floor. In 2011, the number of serious assaults on staff went up by 600% on the on previous year. Prisoners are raped and many commit suicide.
The stress of being on remand while waiting for police to bring the charges to court is often a contributing factor to these suicides. In 2010, four residents from Feilding killed themselves while awaiting trial or sentencing in the space of three months. Statistics released by the chief coroner’s office found that 27 prisoners on remand have killed themselves in the last few years and the number of remand prisoners who commit suicide has more than doubled in the last two years. In 2010 in addition to those who died, another 190 prisoners attempted suicide.
Denial of appropriate pain medication
Because of increased levels of violence, prisoners sometimes end up in hospital – with broken limbs, head injuries or perhaps an eye poked out. Prisoners also get sick with cancer, heart disease, abscesses and infected teeth. Sometimes they have back injuries like Kim Dotcom. But no matter how bad the pain, Paracetamol is all they get. If they have an operation in hospital and need morphine for pain relief, when they get back to prison, the morphine is replaced by paracetamol.
The Ombudsman recently conducted an investigation into the health and medical treatment of prisoners. His report makes it clear that prisoners are entitled to the same level of health care as anyone else in the community but cites numerous incidences where prisoners in severe pain were denied medically prescribed pain killers. The Ombudsman reported: “We were told by prisoners that they are frequently advised by custody staff, ‘to take paracetamol and lie down’ or ‘paracetamol will fix everything’. Many prisoners told us that paracetamol does not relieve the level of pain they experience.” In a previous post, it was reported that the Corrections Department also denies prisoners certain psychiatric medication; hundreds of prisoners in New Zealand have ADHD but are not allowed Ritalin in prison.
So let’s get the story straight. New Zealand prisons are far from ‘safe’; neither are they ‘humane’. There is no doubt that Kim Dotcom was subject to cruel and inhuman treatment by Serco. He was not the first – and he will not be the last. Cruel and inhuman treatment is a daily occurrence in our prison system; by denying prisoners medication prescribed by specialists, prison health services are complicit in this torture. And let’s not forget that Dotcom’s prosecution is being driven by the United States – a country which endorses the use of enhanced torture techniques at Guantanamo Bay and flights of rendition to allow prisoners to be tortured in other countries. We should keep a close eye on what happens at Serco-run prisons in New Zealand.