Cruelty by Corrections pushes prisoners into suicide

Sunday 20 May 2012, 9:40PM

The Coroner, David Crerar, has just released his findings into the death in prison of Richard John Barriball. The coroner noted that Barriball had been in prison only a few days before killing himself and was highly critical of the actions of staff at Otago Corrections Facility (OCF). On arrival he was detoxing from alcohol and placed in the At Risk cells – generally reserved for suicidal prisoners. While in At Risk, he was subject to the usual abusive procedures – doing the ‘naked squat’ four times a day and deprived of sleep at night by the lights coming on every 30 minutes.

The coroner also noted that Barriball’s arm had been operated on three times and he couldn’t use his left hand.  He was in so much pain he was prescribed Tramadol which is a synthetic opiate. After a couple of days in the At Risk cells, he was moved to a cell in mainstream where Corrections officers refused to give him his medication.  This is because  medical staff, who are allowed to dispense opiate medication, had all gone home for the day.  The notes on  Barriball’s prison file stated: “Evening Tramadol not given as no security escort available.” 

The coroner said the stress faced by Barriball in the days leading up to his death was overwhelming and this led to his suicide.  He also noted that once his body was discovered, the officer who found the body refused to enter his cell to start CPR until other officers arrived to assist. He also noted that: “The attending nurse did not collect the defibrillator which was available for staff attending the scene”. The coroner wrote: “The causes of the death and the circumstances of the death of Richard Barriball have shown suboptimal care by OCF… (including) the failure of OCF to provide delivery of prescribed pain relief.” 

Anna Kingi

Anna Kingi died in the Auckland Regional Woman's Facility in 2008 - of heart failure rather than suicide. But she also pushed the emergency button asking for help and was ignored for well over an hour. Des- cribing what happened at the inquest, the Waikato Times reported that: “A guard, whose name was suppressed, said she heard the alarm on November 10, 2008, but she was very busy so she just asked through the intercom if everything was alright. When there was no answer, she decided to ignore it. Another guard who was supposed to check on Kingi said she just walked around the cell block without looking in any cells. ”

A cardiologist who testified at the inquest said Ms Kingi could probably have been saved if a defibrillator had been used within a few minutes after she pressed the alarm. Once they found the body, it took another 13 minutes just to open the cell door. The coroner was highly critical of the prison officers who ignored Corrections protocols and failed to respond.

Suicide rate seven times higher

The way in which Corrections staff failed to respond to these pleas for help suggests that a culture of institutional neglect has developed in New Zealand prisons. The cruelty and abuse is not limited to these three cases.  Information provided under the Official Information Act, shows that 75 people have died in prison since 2008.  So far the coroner has investigated 37 of these deaths and found 13 were due to suicide. That’s a third. Another 39 are still under investigation.  It seems inevitable that a third of these deaths will also turn out to be suicides. 

Let’s compare this with the suicide rate in the community. In 2011, there were 558 suicides in New Zealand giving a suicide rate for males of 19 deaths per 100,000. In the same year, there were 12 suicides in prison - a rate of 140 per 100,000. In other words, the suicide rate for prisoners is more than seven times higher than the rate in the community. 

Systemic abuse

Despite the high rate, this analysis looks at only two cases – Richard Barriball and Anna Kingi, Even in these three, there is clear evidence of cruelty and neglect which contributed to the prisoner’s death.  What would we find if we examined the Coroner’s reports on the other 12 suicides where the Coroner’s investigation is complete – or the remaining 39 deaths which the Coroner has yet to investigate? The answer is - we would find a whitewash.  This is because the Coroner investigates the circumstances and the causes of death but does not determine civil, criminal or disciplinary liability.

Neither does the Office of the Ombudsman determine liability. In fact the Ombudsmen don’t even invest- igate prisoner deaths. In a recent investigation into the health care of prisoners (2011), the Ombudsman expressed concerns about the lack of access to medical staff and the systemic denial of pain medication but said: “An Ombudsman could elect to conduct his or her own investigation (into the death of a prisoner), but this has never been considered necessary.”

The Ombudsmen have another role - as a National Preventive Mechanism to satisfy New Zealand’s commitment in 2007 to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (“OPCAT”).  In other words, their job is to prevent cruel and inhumane treatment before it happens. In the latest Report issued by OPCAT, the Ombudsman expressed concerns about the treatment of vulnerable prisoners in the At Risk cells but made no mention of sleep deprivation in these cells or how this 'treatment' contributes to prisoner suicides. 

Nevertheless, because of their concerns about the inability of prison medical services to provide appropriate medical care for prisoners in a custodial environment, both the Ombudsman and the National Health Committee recommend that responsibility for health care should be removed from the Corrections Department entirely - and given to the Ministry of Health.  Unfortunately, this recommendation has been ignored. In the meantime prisoners continue to commit suicide at an alarming rate. This seems likely to continue until a prison officer is prosecuted and criminal liability for an inmate’s death is established. 

Liability for contributing to suicide

The Crimes Act 1961 covers situations where someone contributes to the death of another person - by withholding of the essentials of life or assisting in a suicide. Section 151 of the Act  enshrines a duty to provide the necessaries of life and protect from injury. It states: “Everyone who has actual care or charge of a person who is a vulnerable adult and who is unable to provide himself or herself with necessaries is under a legal duty (a)to provide that person with necessaries; and (b)to take reasonable steps to protect that person from injury.”  Section 195 provides penalties of up to ten years in prison for “ill-treatment, neglect or failure to protect a child or vulnerable adult.”

Prison inmates are clearly vulnerable to the officers who are supposed to take care of them. They're told when to get out of bed, when to come out of their cells, when to eat, what to eat and when to strip naked. They’re also vulnerable to arbitrary decisions made by officers who may deny prescribed medication and appropriate assistance when in distress.  Prison is an environment which deliberately creates a sense of powerlessness - as identified in the Stanford prison experiment, the Milgram experiment and numerous other studies. Except what is happening in New Zealand prisons is not an experiment – inmates are dying and committing suicide. 

What’s remarkable about all this is that not one prison officer has yet been prosecuted for failing to provide the necessaries of life or for assisting in these suicides.  Right now the police, Corrections management, the Coroner and the Ombudsman are all turning a blind eye to the cruel and seemingly criminal behaviour which contributes to these deaths. This is a sad indictment on how punitive a society we have become - no one even sees this behaviour as a crime. Unless the police take action, this institutionalised cruelty seems likely to continue.

Roger Brooking, Howard League for Penal Reform