Peter Williams: Jail isolation breaks souls and minds

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Jason Palmer was punched after releasing Latu Kepu (pictured) from a 30-hour stretch in solitary confinement. Photo / Christine Cornege
Jason Palmer was punched after releasing Latu Kepu (pictured) from a 30-hour stretch in solitary confinement. Photo / Christine Cornege

The sad case of Corrections officer Jason Palmer being fatally punched by prisoner Latu Kepu highlights the danger of keeping prisoners in close confinement without adequate exercise and humane treatment.

Kepu was received on February 4, 2010, and immediately placed in the "high security" compound at Spring Hill Prison. On May 14 he was suspected of theft and reclassified as a maximum security prisoner, and the intention was to send him to Paremoremo Prison on the Monday, which is the only maximum security prison in New Zealand.

Kepu, following his re-classification, was placed in segregation from other prisoners, and on Saturday morning was therefore not unlocked with other inmates in the unit. During the morning he was upset and wanted to know why he was not being released with the other prisoners.

Palmer was the case officer for Kepu, and their relationship was acrimonious. At about 1pm, three prisoner officers, including Palmer, unlocked Kepu so that he could be released from his cell for one hour, which is the minimum time a prisoner must be released from his cell each 24 hours.

Immediately Kepu threw one punch at Palmer, causing him to fall backwards on to a concrete path and to thereby sustain fatal injuries.

There have been four inquiries into this sad incident, by the police, the Department of Labour, the Department of Corrections and the coroner. None of these inquiries, however, dealt with the possibility that claustrophobia and inhumane treatment were factors in this tragedy.

Kepu's initial classification as a high-security prisoner would have meant that he received no rehabilitation efforts while in prison and that, for the great bulk of time, had been alone in his cell with nothing meaningful to occupy his mind.

If he had been transferred to Paremoremo Prison on the Monday, he would have been placed in D Block, in a cage, spending 23 hours a day there, again with no educational courses nor human efforts to rehabilitate him.

At the time of the fatal incident, Kepu was locked up in a small basic cell alone for about 30 hours, and during the last five or six hours, brooding on why he had not been released with the other prisoners earlier on the same day.

Kepu is described as a strongly built 21-year-old man of Tongan descent, and it is likely that his treatment at Spring Hill Prison caused him to become claustrophobic and psychiatrically ill.

I quote from a letter I received a few days ago from an inmate of D Block, Paremoremo Prison.

"Just witnessed another control and restraint exercise. About eight to 10 prisoner officers rush in, kitted up in riot control gear. They overpower the prisoner, apply thumb-locks, twist their arms behind their backs, apply a choke hold around their throat and cause severe pain.

"These C & R exercises occur daily at Paremoremo Prison.

"Prisoners are driven over the brink by their dreary, monotonous routine. Each prisoner is contained in a small concrete box with no windows, with nothing to do, and where nothing constructive or rehabilitative is given. Sometimes they react irrationally - each prisoner is kept in these conditions for 23 hours a day."

In addition to being kept in claustrophobic conditions, prisoners are further punished by, at times, being placed in segregation, and one prisoner told me that he had been kept apart from all other prisoners for six months at Paremoremo Prison.

The recent riots at Ngawha Prison were in fact protests because prisoners were being locked down for excessive periods due, allegedly, to staff shortages.

The time is well overdue for a review of the use of claustrophobia in our prisons as a means of breaking down prisoners' spirits, and at times causing psychosis.

It is uncertain how many prisoners in New Zealand are being held in lockdowns or solitary confinement, and because access to these prisoners is heavily monitored by the prison authorities, it is difficult to get first-hand information.

Mental instability has been linked to lockdowns from as early as the 1860s. Prison records from Denmark recorded that human beings placed in isolation soon began exhibiting signs of mental illness. Many prisoners preferred the lash to solitary confinement. Expert reports in America confirm the well-known fact that claustrophobia per se can cause mental illness.

Recently, a state prison director who ordered inordinate solitary confinement of a prisoner was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for taking $50,000 in pay-offs from right-wing lobbyists.

The Prison Reform Society is at present collating material in regard to excessive use of claustrophobia and loneliness as a punishment in New Zealand prisons, and would welcome any information on this and related topics.


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- NZ Herald

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