Water Water CREDIT: ADAC

Drinking too much water to be an offence.

Sunday 25 March 2012, 8:15AM

A Bill has just passed its first reading in Parliament which will enable prisoners to be charged with an offence for drinking too much water. Corrections Minister Anne Tolley said: “The Bill will make it an offence for a prisoner to ‘waterload’ prior to a drug test. This means that a prisoner can be disciplined if they are found to be attempting to dilute their urine sample by intentionally drinking large amounts of water prior to being tested.”

This is nonsense – prisoners don’t know when they’ll be tested. The drug tests are random so it’s virtually impossible to ‘intentionally’ drink large amounts of water prior to being tested. If a prisoner is thirsty and drinks a lot of water, and if a random drug test is done soon afterwards, this will now constitute ‘misconduct’.

Double jeopardy - 'bashful bladder'

There's another problem. When prisoners are made to do a drug test, there are usually two or three prison officers watching. Some people find this so off-putting they can’t pee. The inability to pee in front of others is a well-known psychological condition called paruresis – sometimes referred to as ‘bashful bladder’. The condition affects around 7% of the population. Those with mild paruresis are able to urinate in certain circumstances but incapable in others. In British prisons, paruresis is considered a valid reason for a prisoner’s inability to produce a sample and is not to be construed as an offence. However, in New Zealand, failing to supply a urine sample in prison is classified as ‘misconduct’ – and is automatically assumed to indicate a positive result.

If a prisoner has any misconduct offences on their file in the six months before appearing at the Parole Board, their chances of being released are substantially diminished. In prison you have to keep your nose clean (and now your bladder empty) to have any chance of release. One female prisoner I worked with developed paruresis after being sexually abused. She was charged with misconduct when she failed to produce a sample in front of three officers. She appealed to a visiting Justice of the Peace to have the ‘misconduct’ removed from her file but the process took so long she ended up serving her whole sentence.

A male prisoner diagnosed with cancer was also affected by paruresis and told me can’t pee when officers are watching. The prison medical staff know he has had cancer but won’t accept that he has paruresis. They told him he would have to pay for a private psychiatrist to come into the prison to make a diagnosis – at a cost of about $5,000.

Denial of rehabilitation

This Bill provides one more mechanism for punishing rather than rehabilitating prisoners. Any ‘misconduct’ in prison (such as a positive drug test or failing to provide a urine sample) leads to a denial of privileges – including attendance at rehabilitation programmes. Prisoners with drug problems have to give up drugs first and have a record of good behaviour before being allowed to attend drug treatment. Now it seems they have to stay thirsty as well. If they drink too much water and have diluted urine – that’s misconduct – meaning no rehabilitation.

There is no need for this punitive piece of legislation. The number of prisoners caught smoking cannabis is on the decline. In the last few years, Corrections has tightened up security and fewer drugs are smuggled in. In 2010, only 10% of prisoners tested positive on random drug tests – the lowest result since drug tests began in 1998. In contrast to this, in 2011, only 1,255 prisoners attended rehabilitation programmes targeting their offending. That’s about 5% of the 20,000 people who end up in prison each year. The Department doesn’t need to be more rigorous about drug testing. It needs to stop creating barriers and put more prisoners into rehabilitation.