Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cruel, inhuman and degrading

Sleep-deprivation is cruel, inhuman, and degrading. Its use is prohibited by the United Nations Convention Against Torture and by the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. So why are we using it in New Zealand prisons?

sleep deprivation is a deliberate and daily practice in New Zealand prisons. What’s worse, it’s reserved primarily for those who are least able to cope with it – prisoners who are suicidal and psychologically vulnerable. The Corrections Department even has special cells for suicidal prisoners with camera surveillance 24/7 so the prisoner can be observed at all times – including on the toilet. Anything the prisoner might use to commit suicide is taken away; they’re not allowed underwear, clothes, sheets or blankets – in case they rip them up to use as a rope. All they get to wear is a canvas tunic. It’s so tough it can’t be ripped – and it’s very uncomfortable.

Throughout the night, the lights come on automatically every 30 minutes, so staff can see if the prisoner is doing anything – other than sleeping. Euphemistically, the Department calls these ‘at risk’ cells. In reality, they’re sleep deprivation cells and Corrections has 160 of them.

That's not the only cruel, inhuman, and degrading thing Corrections does. One of the salient features of US torture is their use of nudity and searches to shame and humiliate prisoners. We do that here, too:
Sleep deprivation is not the only breach of UN Rule 31. Another is ‘the naked squat’. I heard about this from a prisoner who spent a weekend in these so-called ‘at risk’ cells. Immediately after being sentenced, he was taken to the receiving office at Rimutaka Prison. There he was told to strip naked in front of four officers, and crouch down so the cheeks of his bum spread apart. Two officers got down and looked up his anus – to see whether he had a cell phone, drugs or other contraband hidden up there. Then he had to stand and hold up his penis and scrotum so they could see if he was hiding anything under his genitals. Finally they looked under his armpits and into his mouth.


In the morning, he was taken to the shower block – where pretty much everything he did could be observed. Once brought back to his cell, he had to do the squat again. Then he was taken to a different cell to have breakfast. He asked why? No one seemed to know. After breakfast, he was brought back and once again, the officers examined his anus and genitals. The same thing happened after lunch and after dinner. He was required to perform ‘the naked squat’ every time he came back to his cell. In the course of one weekend, he had to spread his cheeks 11 times.

I understand that there is sometimes a need for strip searches for security reasons. But this is utterly gratuitous, and seems designed to humiliate and degrade prisoners simply for the joy of it. And it's all legal; section 98 of the Corrections Act 2004 gives prison officers wide scope to conduct strip searches, to the extent that the only way this humiliation can be avoided is to remain in your cell 24/7 (and then they'd probably consider that to be a disciplinary infraction, and strip search you).

The Bill of Rights Act affirms that everyone has the right not to be subjected to cruel and degrading treatment, and requires that everyone deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the person. Corrections are violating those principles. They need to stop, now, and bring their practice back into line with international human rights norms.