Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Corrections union slams 'degrading' extended search powers in prisons

A proposal to extend strip search powers in prisons has been slammed as needless, degrading and possibly dangerous by the corrections union.

A select committee heard yesterday that procedures for searching inmates for contraband were sufficient, and removing safeguards could lead to an increase in violence.

The Corrections Amendment Bill would remove the need for officers to get permission from a prison manager before searching an inmate. Officials would also perform a more invasive procedure for all strip searches.

Corrections Association of New Zealand president Beven Hanlon said the current strip search procedure was highly successful and he did not believe corrections officers needed greater powers.

"I'm not aware of any statistics that say we've got a problem with prisoners concealing things inside them that we're not able to find during a strip search process."

At the first reading of the bill in February, Corrections Minister Anne Tolley said the number of prisoners testing positive for drugs had fallen from 36 per cent in 1998 to five per cent in 2012. But she argued that too many prisoners were still using substances.

At present, officials could - with permission - make a prisoner bend over during a strip search if there was reasonable grounds for an inspection. There was also a routine, less intrusive search, for people leaving or returning to prison.

The bill would require prisoners in all strip searches to squat low to the ground, legs apart, and be inspected closely by flashlight or magnifying device.

Mr Hanlon said the new powers would "introduce another level of conflict" because prisoners carrying drugs or weapons were more likely to be hostile.

The Chief Inspector of Crimes of Torture legislation for the Office of the Ombudsmen, Greg Price, warned that if internationally-recognised safeguards on prison procedures were completely removed, it could plunge New Zealand back into a "dark ages" of corrections policy.

He referred to the beating and torture of three young prisoners at Mangaroa prison in 1993: "We don't want to go back to those days."

Mr Price said the Corrections Department had to strike a balance between policing contraband and respecting prisoners' rights, and the current law provided this.

The Corrections Amendment Bill was introduced last year to remove barriers to managing prisoners and encourage efficient, cost-effective prisons.

Human Rights groups told the committee that basic rights and dignity should not be sacrificed for these goals.

Human Rights Commission spokeswoman Judy McGregor warned that proceeding with some of the changes could breach conventions set out by international watchdogs such as the United Nations.

The commission, along with the Human Rights Foundation, criticised the bill's potential to reduce healthcare in prisons, powers to deny prisoners exercise, and the removal of oversight for inmates placed in mechanical restraints for longer than 24 hours.

PROCEDURES

Now:

* Prison manager's approval needed for strip searches

* Officials can perform two forms of strip search: routine inspection for inmates leaving or returning to prison, or prisoners made to bend down, legs apart if believed to be carrying contraband

Proposed:

* Approval from prison manager not needed

* All strip searches could involve the prisoner squatting with buttocks adjacent to heels, legs apart, and being inspected with a flashlight or magnifying device

- NZ Herald

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