Kim Dotcom recently spent a month on remand in Mt Eden prison after the Solicitor General bowed to pressure to have him extradited to the United States. 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 just 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 escort him, and hand him over to another set of officers – who tell him to strip off once again. He protests – somewhat timidly – saying he’s just been searched five minutes ago. But it’s in the rules. All prisoners being admitted to the At Risk/Sleep Deprivation cells have to be searched. So once again, he strips off and does ‘the naked squat’ while more officers eagerly examine every orifice.
It's in the rules
In the morning, he’s taken to the shower block – where pretty much everything he does can be observed. Once he’s brought back to his cell, he has to do the squat again. Then he’s taken to a different cell to have breakfast. He asks why? No one seems to know. After breakfast, he’s brought back and once again, the officers examine his anus and genitals. The same thing happens after lunch and after dinner. He’s required to perform ‘the naked squat’ every time he comes back to his cell. Why? Because he’s a prisoner, a species less than human, and it’s in the rules. In the course of one weekend, he had to spread his cheeks 11 times.
Another extremely vulnerable prisoner was kept in these Sleep Deprivation 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 who want to examine every orifice 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. How degrading is that?
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.
But the prisoner is not really human. He’s barely an animal, so the treatment is focused on his anus – and keeping him awake for days on end. This is an appalling abuse of power – and a breach of the Corrections Act and United Nations Conventions. When this sort of abuse happens in other countries, Amnesty International and a few academics are quick to point out the perpetrators. Meanwhile, the abuse of sleep deprived prisoners in New Zealand has been going on for years. The Corrections Department is obsessed with this anal analysis - unfortunately, the rest of us don't seem to give a shit.
Spokesperson for Howard League for Penal reform.