Sunday, June 17, 2007

Worse than animals

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.


BTW, if anyone has access to NZS 5413:1993 Code of Practice for the Manufacture and Use of Stock crates on Heavy Vehicles, it would be interesting to compare the minimum standards for e.g. ventilation with those used in prison vans.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 6/17/2007 06:08:00 PM

A thought provoking post, idiot. I think there's much negative hyperbole around prisoners' rights. Unfortunately, the implications of this percolate through to the policy makers in Parliament when it comes to budget. Corrections does what it can afford to do. I am sure there is no one in Corrections who deliberately sets out to create horrible conditions for prisoners. It's just they do what is safe and secure within the available funding. That doesn't excuse some of the operational issues - but in broad terms - the failings here have much to do with resourcing. That being said, there are some Pollyannas around who do not give enough stock to the need to maintain security. If you're transporting some of the country's most violent and aggressive arseholes for an appointment with the judge you need to be able to maintain security. In the fallout from the Liam Ashley case there were lots of "why didn't the stop and check" type remarks. My response was, "and do what? Open the doors and allow violent and dangerous, desperate individuals to afford themselves a bid for freedom?" You know, I can well imagine that in a parallel universe somewhere, there's a NZ Corrections department being absolutely hammered for the hostage taking in central Auckland that was allowed to occur when an escorting officer, thinking a youngster was getting beaten up opened the van doors to check on his well-being.

Posted by Anonymous : 6/18/2007 09:12:00 PM

Anon: I am sure there is no one in Corrections who deliberately sets out to create horrible conditions for prisoners. It's just they do what is safe and secure within the available funding.

And organisation - and that's a problem right there. Prison transport vehicles are dealt with individually by each prison, often by middle management staff who frequently don't have a clue what they are doing, from within a blame-culture which encourages them strongly to take a strongly risk-averse approach (and which encourages them to dehumanise those in their care to boot).

Interestingly, Chubb, which has national-level procurement, had some of the better vehicles.

That being said, there are some Pollyannas around who do not give enough stock to the need to maintain security. If you're transporting some of the country's most violent and aggressive arseholes for an appointment with the judge you need to be able to maintain security.

Sure. But most prisoners aren't violent or aggressive, and not even Corrections thinks so. When it transports prisoners on prison work details, for example - that's outside the prison, for example when it rents them out as slaves to orchardists who are too shit to pay even the minimum wage - it is happy to transport prisoners in normal vans / minibuses, complete with seats, seatbelts, temperature control etc (whatever comes standard in a Ford Transit), with grills on the windows the only tip of the hat to security. An obvious question that the media aren't asking is if this is good enough for those prisoners then, why are conditions so much worse when they're being taken to court or to another prison?

Corrections also recognises the need for different levels of security and for some prisoners to be kept segregated in transit. And there's no reason why it can't continue to do this, while also treating prisoners with some basic humanity.

As for the need to open doors to check on prisoners during transport, one thing that is absolutely crystal clear in the report (and which really deserves far more attention than it is getting) is that this is purely and simply a matter of poor design. Prisoner transport vehicles are not designed so as to allow the escorts to keep an eye on those in their care during the journey. There's no clear line of sight (and no lighting anyway even if there was), no cameras, no intercom. It's astounding how many of Corrections' concerns around "security" would disappear into thin air if only they designed their fucking vehicles properly in the first place.

And no, I'm not going to apologise for my anger there, because it is something that we should all be very, very angry about. The first job of a prison guard is to keep a bloody eye on the people they are guarding. You don't need a big stick if people know they are being watched. A kid is dead, and others have been beaten, intimidated, and subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment, because Corrections forgot that.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 6/18/2007 11:15:00 PM

Excellent points, Idiot. The Pollyanna comment wasn't aimed at you. It was the slew of people who thought they knew how to manage prisoners. You're right, of course, there are some fundamental issues in terms of design. Of course, my response is to simply say that you can have prisoners wafted to court in velour and gold-lined carriages sprayed with rose water - it's all a case of cost and security/safety. Despite its reputation, Corrections is not a particularly well-funded organisation. It's largely a people business so most of its Vote goes on staff. The amounts it gets for capital has not been extremely high and where there have been what seem like generous pots of money thrown in for capital it's been for specific purposes like building a new prison. There is a huge deferred maintenance issue which swallows large tracts of any discretionary capital funding. Put simply, poor old Corrections has had to balance things like putting toilets in cells versus putting special air con supplies in trucks. I am not excusing their decision making in this area - merely trying to paint a richer picture of the kind of balancing act an under-resourced department which is charged with caring for peoples lives and public safety has to make . It's easy for Ombudsmen to say in retrospect that this should have been done. But like all disasters, there were many contributing decisions all of which were fair and reasonable at the time. It's only when you get a disaster that your analysis freezes and you can make 20-20 retrospective value judgements. Hell, one of the Ombudsmen used to be partly responsible for funding prison capital investment and could have diverted resources that way years ago. The Chief Ombudsmen used to run Justice and, as such, had the opportunity to be the ultimate adviser to government on justice-related expenditure.

Having said all that, I agree with your sentiment. More can and should be done. The Ombudsmen have done one good thing and that is to reset the public tolerance for this kind of investment to be made. Thankfully, whatever changes do get made will not be subjected to the kind of ludicrous and simple-minded chest beating that underfloor heating or any other of a million capital choices made by Corrections that has attracted public and political opprobrium.

Posted by Anonymous : 6/19/2007 10:02:00 PM