Last week the Ombudsman released a report [PDF] on the transport of prisoners by the Department of Corrections. It paints an appalling picture of the inhumane conditions prisoners are routinely subjected to when being transported between prisons, or between prisons and courts. While most journeys are short, prisoners are crowded into unlit, poorly-ventilated metal boxes, exposed to extremes of heat and cold, with no provision for their basic human needs (e.g. water or toilets), and with no ability to contact guards if anything goes wrong. On hearing of these conditions, my first thought was how they compared to the conditions under which we are allowed to transport animals. The answer is "very badly".
The minimum conditions for the transport of animals are laid out in a code of recommendations issued by the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee. The code aims at meeting five basic requirements for animals being transported:
- freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition,
- the provision of appropriate comfort and shelter,
- the prevention, or rapid diagnosis and treatment, of injury, disease or infestation with parasites,
- freedom from distress,
- the ability to display normal patterns of behaviour.
I'll deal with each of those requirements in turn.
Freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition: Animals must be provided with drinking water prior to transport, and must be provided with adequate food and water on long-haul journeys (anything over ten hours). Corrections provides prisoners being transported with a packed meal on long trips, but water is not usually provided. One prison allows prisoners to take a single paper cup for an entire journey (which usually spills); others leave it to the discretion of guards or allow it only at rest stops 2 - 3 hours apart. In hot weather, this can lead to significant discomfort and possible health problems. Despite bottled water being widely available, it is apparently seen as a "security risk".
Appropriate comfort and shelter: Animals must be provided with appropriate shelter from heat, wind, and cold during transport. Prisoners are transported in poorly ventilated metal boxes with neither heating or air conditioning. The small size and close conditions of the boxes turns them into sweat boxes in summer, while the metal construction means that prisoners freeze in winter. While some prisons provide blankets in cold conditions, others regard them as a "security risk", even for low-security prisoners.
Prevention of injury: Drivers transporting animals are required to inspect stock within 30 minutes of departure, and every 2 hours throughout the journey. They must stop and provide assistance on becoming aware of a problem. While Corrections requires that prisoners be kept under surveillance at all times, the design of the vehicles used makes this impossible. As a result, guards are unaware of health problems, or of violence among those in their care. Liam Ashley was murdered during transit, and the guards were completely unaware of the situation until they found his corpse on arrival. While Corrections could fit panic buttons to allow prisoners to summon help in the event of a medical emergency, these are regarded as a "security risk".
Freedom from distress: In addition to the above requirements (which prevent distress from starvation or environmental conditions), animals must not be overcrowded. Corrections packs prisoners in in cramped conditions, such that they must sit facing each other with legs interlocking in some vehicles. Stock trucks must be driven steadily, without rapid acceleration and braking, and with careful cornering to avoid placing sudden loads on the animals. Drivers transporting prisoners are subject to no such requirement, and prisoners report being bounced around like toys and sliding into one another on the bare metal seats. The lack of windows and ventilation aggravates motion sickness, and frequently results in prisoners vomiting in transit, sometime son one another. Finally, Corrections does not usually provide toilet facilities or adequate rest stops - meaning that prisoners on long journeys or with health problems can be subjected to severe discomfort and humiliation.
Normal behaviour: Animals must be able to travel in a natural position with sufficient space and headroom. As previously mentioned, prisoners are crowded in, and on long journeys must endure up to twelve hours in cramped conditions with no ability to stretch or significantly change posture. Prisoners are denied the ability to exercise or stretch their legs, even when stopped in secure facilities such as police stations or other prisons.
These are just some of the highlights, but the thrust is clear: if animals were transported with the same disregard as prisoners, people would be prosecuted for it. Apparently, though, standards are lower for human beings.
Members of the "hang 'em high" brigade will no doubt point out that we are talking about prisoners, with the implication that this mistreatment should be seen as part of their punishment. That is wrong. As John Belgrave pointed out when releasing the report, it is the deprivation of liberty which is the punishment, and that prisoners are still entitled to be treated humanely and with dignity and with regard for their safety (something Corrections seems to have a callous disregard for). I would add that no New Zealand court has sentenced prisoners to be exposed to extremes of heat and cold, to starvation or thirst, to be forced to piss themselves or to be beaten, intimidated or even murdered by other prisoners. The vicious, vindictive and sadistic are of course free to push for the law to be changed to permit such sentences - but they are not permissible de jure at present, and we should not allow them to be imposed de facto through the neglect and incompetence of those responsible for running our prisons.