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The Dominion Post has just reported the outcome of the coroner’s inquiry into the suicide of Kerry Joll. Under the headline “Prison death 'tragic loss of life” the DomPost reveals he was found dead in his cell three months after being sent to prison for drink driving. Sure it’s tragic – but the headline should have read: “Corrections Department says saving prisoners lives is not worth the benefits”. This in effect is what the Department said in response to a report from the coroner that the Corrections Department should make more effort to assist suicidal prisoners.
Here’s what happened. Kerry Joll had a serious alcohol and drug problem. In 2011 he was sentenced to 14 months in prison for drink driving – his 10th conviction. Every prisoner has a brief health assessment on admission. When Joll was interviewed by prison nurses, he told them he was taking antidepressants, and that he had hepatitis C – a disease frequently associated with the use of dirty needles. Three weeks after he was sentenced, he stopped taking his antidepressants. No one seems to know why. Two months later he hung himself. The coroner said he left a note indicating he was “having difficulty dealing with his depression and was unhappy that the Corrections Department did not appear to take seriously his complaint about very loud music being played from the next door cell”.
The Corrections Department absolved itself of any responsibility for his death by claiming that when Mr Joll underwent his health assessment, he failed to reveal that he had made at least two previous attempts at suicide. But they then acknowledged that this information was already on his file but nobody in the prison medical team bothered to look at it – and the IT system used by Corrections does not bring up a red flag indicating when a prisoner is a potential suicide risk.
Not worth the benefits
The coroner appears to have recommended that the Department upgrade its IT system so that vulnerable prisoners are ‘red flagged’. That might help, but management at Corrections don't give a tuppeny stuff. Their written response to the coroner was: “Improving our current information systems is regarded as not worth the benefits it would bring because of cost, complexity and proportionately few incidents it would benefit.”
Really? The suicide rate in New Zealand prisons is 11 times higher than the suicide rate in the community. Twelve prisoners committed suicide in 2011 - double the figure for the previous year. The rate of failed suicide attempts was almost double the number which actually succeeded. Twelve dead prisoners a year are not worth the benefit?
How can a Government Department get away with a cavalier attitude like that? Look at the fuss which goes on when Government Departments inadvertently release confidential information to the public - even though nobody dies. Look at the fuss that went on when the police broke the law to arrest Kim Dotcom – even though nobody died. Look at the fuss the Department made when Jason Palmer became the first prison officer to die in New Zealand. The media were all over these stories – and so were the politicians.
But when 12 prisoners a year commit suicide - no fuss at all. No media interest. No political interest. Not even much interest from the Coroner. Certainly no interest from Corrections – definitely not worth the benefit of ‘improving our information systems’. Life is cheap in New Zealand prisons.