Last week Judith Collins introduced the Corrections Amendment Bill into Parliament. She said it would enhance prison security and improve the management of prisoners and offenders on community sentences. One provision in the Bill will place responsibility for the health care of prisoners with prison health centre managers - who are all nurses. This would remove this responsibility from contracted doctors and give it to nurses who are employees of the Department.
Wellington alcohol and drug counsellor Roger Brooking is concerned this gives nurses too much power.
“Nurses are already the gatekeepers to the prison health system. Currently, they decide who gets to see the prison doctor,” he said. "As Corrections employees, their primary responsibility is to the Department rather than to a code of ethics guiding the performance of their duties."
The case of body builder Justin Rys
Mr Brooking has worked with body builder, Justin Rys, who was sentenced to prison in 2007 for importing GBL a Class drug known as Fantasy. Mr Rys is due to appear in the Wellington District Court next week facing further charges of importing GBL.
Mr Brooking said: “What happened to Mr Rys is an example of what can happen when nurses are in charge. Mr Rys has severe heart failure and sleep apnoea as a result of years of steroid use. He's on seven different medications and requires an oxygen mask to assist him to sleep at night. Without the mask, he suffocates in his sleep and wakes up - and this happens dozens of times a night. His condition is so serious that specialists have told him that he may have only 12 months to live."
While on remand in Rimutaka, the machine which pumps the oxygen into Mr Rys’ mask broke down. After a distressing and sleepless night, he told the nursing staff that he was struggling to breathe and needed a new machine. The nurses apparently did nothing. Mr Rys subsequently advised nursing staff every day for the next 2½ weeks that he was suffocating in his sleep and needed help. The nurses didn’t seem to care.
Mr Brooking said that: “Despite Mr Rys obvious distress, his concerns were ignored. It was only when his lawyer contacted the prison manager about the problem that any action was taken. The very next day, he was taken into Hospital and given a new machine.”
Introducing the new Bill, Judith Collins said it would make the provision of health care in prison more efficient. Mr Brooking thinks it may have the opposite effect:
“Mr Rys is not the only inmate who struggles to see the doctor when he needs to. Dozens of patients have complained to me about health problems that the prison system won’t help with. Because they don’t get treatment in a timely manner, some of them end up with permanent disabilities.”
Official concerns about the health of prisoners
Last year the Ministry of Health released a highly critical report about the health care of prisoners. Called Health in Justice, the report said:
“Prisoners typically score poorly on measures of mental health, alcohol and other drug use, oral health, chronic disease, communicable disease, disability, injury, and health risk and protective factors (particularly factors related to living in poverty). The poor health of prisoners not only contributes to their offending but has negative health, social, and economic impacts for all New Zealanders…”
Rather than removing responsibility for health care from doctors, the report recommended transferring responsibility for primary health care in prisons from the Department of Corrections to the health sector. The report contained 30 different recommendations to improve prisoner health care - all of which were ignored by the Government.
The Ombudsman is also investigating. Mr Brooking has a personal letter from Beverley Wakem indicating that the Office of the Ombudsman is currently conducting two separate investigations into the health of prisoners – one focused on physical health, the other on prisoners’ mental health.