Officers kill prisoner trying to commit suicide

Thursday 20 December 2012, 7:22AM



The coroner’s report into the death of Nicholas Harris in Waikeria prison last year was released recently. In the process of trying to stop him from committing suicide, six or more prison officers held him down and restrained him - till he suffocated to death.

Harris had only been in prison a few days and was being held on remand.  He had recently been released from a psychiatric hospital but his mental health problems which were not picked up by prison staff at the intake assessment. The coroner found that: “The assessment of Mr Harris fell short of the national requirement. In particular, the Principal Corrections Officer and the nurse who consulted on that assessment did not make enquiries relating to Mr Harris’ mental state."

On the morning of January 9, 2011 a staff member issued a "code blue" when CCTV footage showed he was planning to kill himself.  Officers entered the cell with the intention of relocating him to the “at risk unit” where he could be monitored more closely.  There were six of them.  Harris was already lying on the floor. They held him face down and applied ‘approved methods of restraint’ to control him.

The cause of death

Corrections told the coroner that "Mr Harris violently resisted the application of these holds, and additional officers were called to assist.” After a struggle that lasted about five minutes, Harris was restrained and handcuffed.  At this point, staff noticed he was not breathing.  The coroner found that the cause of death was "asphyxia of an undetermined cause, initiated either by self-strangulation or pre-existing medical condition, but in combination with restraint, with an underlying condition of morbid obesity with secondary dilated cardiomyopathy (heart disease)".

‘Asphyxia’ means suffocation and the coroner says it was of ‘undetermined cause’. No it wasn’t. It was caused by five or six officers sitting on top and restraining him – clearly described in the coroner’s report as a "seething mass of humanity"See his report here.  The coroner appears to have said the cause was ‘undetermined’ because there were health issues involved and by law, he is not allowed to apportion blame – merely to identify the circumstances of the death and make recommendations for change.

Deaths in police custody

The same limitation applies to the Independent Police Conduct Authority. It investigates complaints against the police - including deaths in police custody. It can make recommendations for change, but also has no power to prosecute.  Earlier this year, the IPCA released a report titled Deaths in Custody after 27 people died in police custody in the last ten years. Seven of them died when officers were overly vigorous in their use of restraint

Five of those who died had underlying medical conditions. Three suffered from heart disease - they collapsed and died after physically struggling against the restraint that was applied to them - just like Nicholas Harris.  Three died from positional asphyxia – being pushed down on the floor, handcuffed from behind – just like Harris; a number were arrested for violent behaviour at the time they collapsed – just like Harris. One death involved a police officer applying a neck hold to someone who was resisting arrest.

Of the 27 deaths in police custody, the IPCA said in over half of them, “the actions of the police fell short of the expected standards” and in four cases, the failings were serious. The report recommended that Police "ensure that the training provided to staff reinforces the dangers associated with restraining people in a prone position with their hands tied behind their back". However, not one police officer was prosecuted.  Only two officers even faced disciplinary action - one received an ‘adverse report’ and the other received a written warning.

This is because the IPCA has no power to prosecute – that’s up to the police. But the police are not keen to arrest their own officers - even when the IPCA has pointed out that serious failings were involved.  Police are equally reluctant to charge Corrections officers whose failings have contributed to the death of prisoners in their care – and about 80 have suffered ‘unnatural deaths’ in the last ten years. Each death was examined by the coroner – who, of course, doesn’t blame anyone. That’s over 100 people who have died in custody in the last ten years – and not one police officer and not one corrections officer has ever been charged.

That’s unbelievable. Is it really possible that over 100 people can die in police and corrections custody in the last ten years, and not one officer is prosecuted?  Suppose 100 law-abiding citizens died in dubious circumstances from unnatural causes - and the police failed to prosecute anyone.  There would be a national outcry -  Garth McVicar would have an apoplectic fit and heads would roll.  But when 100 prisoners die – who cares?  Certainly not McVicar. It seems there’s one law for Police and Corrections officers in New Zealand – and another for the rest of us.

A sick joke

The reality is that Nicholas Harris was killed by prison officers who, theoretically, were trying to save his life. Actually they were more interested in restraining him – even though he was already lying on the floor. They entered his cell, jumped all over him and suffocated him to death - an obese, suicidal prisoner with a heart condition - in a bizarre attempt to stop him from killing himself. It sounds like a sick joke – except that it’s true. The coroner not only said this was justified, he was so unconcerned about the way Harris died, he didn’t make a single recommendation for change. He didn't even recommend that Harris should have had a psychiatric assessment when he was admitted to prison - or that he should have been given medication to calm him down.

And yet on the coronial services page of the Justice Department website, it says in bold letters: "A coroner speaks for the dead to protect the living".   The people being protected are Police and Corrections officers.