Proper prison procedure would have prevented guard's death - officer

By Hayley Hannan

Spring Hill prison guard Jason Palmer died after he was attacked by inmate Latu Kepa in May. Photo / Supplied
Spring Hill prison guard Jason Palmer died after he was attacked by inmate Latu Kepa in May. Photo / Supplied

If a dangerous inmate was properly assessed and left in his cell, a dead prison officer would still be here, a maximum security prison officer has told an inquest.

Prison officer James Palmer, 33, died after he was punched by inmate Latu Kepu on May 15 last year.

Mr Palmer was escorting the Killer Beez gang member out of his cell for his daily hour of exercise at Springhill Prison at Hampton Downs, about 65kms south of Auckland.

Kepu lashed out and hit Palmer, who fell backwards and hit his head. He died in Middlemore Hospital the next day.

Kepu was convicted of the manslaughter and sentenced to six years four months in jail for the attack, on top of the existing two years eight months term he was already serving.

At a coronial inquest into Palmer's death at the Auckland District Court today, a maximum security officer criticised the way Kepu was dealt with the morning of the assault.

Kepu had been re-classified a high risk the day before the attack and was due to be sent to the maximum security prison at Paremoremo.

He had been charged over an offence earlier in the week, and was due to be charged over allegedly stealing another inmate's packet of biscuits.

Although he was an usually "mouthy'' prisoner, Kepu's behaviour over that week sounded a number of alarm bells leading to reclassification, said Springhill Prison residential manager Louise Maika.

Ms Maika called Vanessa Sutton, residential manager at Paremoremo, on the morning of the assault to see if Kepu could be immediately moved.

Following the conversation, Kepu was not moved but was kept in his cell at the medium security prison.

Paremoremo senior corrections officer Morrin Whareumu said today the violent inmate should have been moved as soon as the transfer was approved.

He said as Kepu hadn't moved prisons, he should have been left in a special management unit or dealt with officers wearing protective gear.

"I don't know why Kepu was not moved. Having read the statements of Vanessa Sutton and Louise Maika, there does not seem to be any particular reason why he was not transferred.''

"I believe if Kepu had been transferred immediately then the assault on Palmer would not have occurred.''

He said the quiet behaviour of Kepu the morning of the attack should have been a warning sign, as "that was not his normal behaviour.''

"I would not have unlocked Kepu, I would have left him there ... The safest option was to not open the cell.''

He said once reclassified, prisoners were normally moved within an hour because they often became violent and lashed out.

The court heard conflicting evidence over a transfer conversation on Saturday morning, before the attack.

Ms Sutton said from her understanding, there was no urgency to move the prisoner, despite his reclassification.

She said the two prison bosses had a "general conversation'' about transferring Kepu: "We could have facilitated a one to one swap ... we could have made up a bed.''

Ms Maika told the court she had said she would rather the prisoner be moved that weekend.

She said although Kepu was a high risk prisoner, he was not showing any violent or agitated behaviour the morning of the attack.

It was easy to look on the situation with hindsight, but that morning "there was nothing to suggest that Mr Kepu was a threat to staff.''

She said Palmer had told her he was ok to deal with Kepu that Saturday.

Mr Whareumu told the court he had serious concerns over the way Kepu was dealt with: "I hope that Palmer's death will be the catalyst for things to change.''

- APNZ

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