Kirsty Johnston is an investigative reporter at the New Zealand Herald.

Autistic man locked in seclusion: 'You wouldn't do it to a dog'

• Autistic man locked in isolation for five years
• Lives in a "seclusion room" with just a mattress and urine bottle
• Warnings from both the Ombudsman and the Human Rights Commission
• A review says he needs to be released to a community setting
• However, a delay with funding and other complications means he is still inside


An autistic man has been locked in a tiny, isolated area of a mental health unit for five years despite top-level warnings his treatment breaches human rights.

Ashley Peacock, 37, lives in almost permanent seclusion at a rehabilitation facility in Porirua, allowed just 90 minutes a day outside.

More than half Ashley's time on the "de-escalation" wing has been confined to a single, cell-like room containing nothing but a plastic-covered mattress and a urine bottle.

• READ MORE: Autistic man locked in isolation for five years: 'He's had everything stripped from him'

He sleeps there, and when staff order it, can be locked in for long periods, including a two-and-a-half year stint with less than 30 minutes out each day for exercise.

The 10m square seclusion room, part of the Tawhirimatea Unit run by Capital & Coast District Health Board, is so secret there are no pictures of it and his parents have never been allowed inside.

Autism advocate Wendy Duff, part of a group working with Ashley's family, said it was one of the worst cases she had seen.

"He didn't commit a murder. And you wouldn't have done that even with a murderer. You wouldn't do it to a dog."

Ashley, who is not a criminal, but has an intellectual disability and a schizophrenic illness, remains at the facility although both the Ombudsman and Human Rights Commission have repeatedly said he needs to come out.

A seclusion room similar to where Ashley is kept at Tawhirimatea. Photo / Supplied
A seclusion room similar to where Ashley is kept at Tawhirimatea. Photo / Supplied



Another report written this year to the National Intellectual Disability Care Agency, which has oversight of people with intellectual disabilities who have complex behavioural needs, strongly agreed with those conclusions.

"Ashley is a significantly disabled man who is managing as best he can in spite of his continually experiencing a traumatising internal world," the review said. "Ashley's current living environment is not appropriate to his needs."

Ashley, who was the subject of a documentary last year, is a compulsory patient under the Mental Health Act. He has lived at Tawhirimatea since 2006, but was placed in the seclusion wing in 2010 after several violent episodes where he lashed out at other patients and staff. He was kept in because the assaults continued.

Ashley Peacock as a young man, before he entered the mental health system. Photo / Supplied
Ashley Peacock as a young man, before he entered the mental health system. Photo / Supplied



However the reviewers believe much of his aggression has been caused by his environment. They said there was a "mismatch" between Ashley's needs and the care he gets, and that for someone with sensory issues, the noise on the unit was too much.

They recommended a bespoke community service where Ashley could have a house and specialist staff to look after him, and "develop a life worth living".

Capital & Coast DHB say they have since put a "a process in place", however despite a provider being willing to take him, the necessary steps for Ashley's transition are yet to happen.

His elderly parents, Dave and Marlena Peacock, are fearful their son will never get out.

They say a combination of funding constraints, and a series of high-profile deaths involving mentally ill patients, are affecting Ashley's case.

"But tightening of funding should not be a justification to deny him basic human rights," Mrs Peacock said. "No one should have to endure what Ashley has endured. Seclusion is supposed to be a last resort, not a treatment like in his case."

Dave and Marlena Peacock with a portrait of their son Ashley Peacock. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Dave and Marlena Peacock with a portrait of their son Ashley Peacock. Photo / Mark Mitchell



Seclusion has been found to be traumatising for both staff and patients, and is considered a form of torture by the United Nations.

The practice is subject to a reduction policy in New Zealand, and is monitored by Crimes of Torture Act Inspectors from the Ombudsman's Office. They, alongside the Human Rights Commission, believe seclusion is still over-used and have repeatedly highlighted Ashley's case as a concern.

A 2013 investigation by Ombudsman Ron Paterson found "little doubt" that the protracted use of seclusion had contributed to an ongoing deterioration of Ashley's mental condition."

"My view is that the current situation has persisted for far too long," he said.

Disability Rights Commissioner Paul Gibson did not think enough was being done for Ashley, and that keeping him locked up would not make him well.

"I can't see how anyone could find any justification for keeping someone in seclusion for this number of years."

Last year Ashley completed five sessions of equine therapy. He loves nature and the outdoors. The funding for the treatment was discontinued. Photo / Supplied
Last year Ashley completed five sessions of equine therapy. He loves nature and the outdoors. The funding for the treatment was discontinued. Photo / Supplied



A dozen other lawyers, human rights experts and advocates and politicians told the Herald they agree, however Capital & Coast spokesman Nigel Fairley disputed the case was a breach of human rights.

He said in cases such as Ashley's there was always tension between protecting and upholding the rights of the individual, and the rights of members of the community to protection and safety."

Dr Fairley said funding discussions were continuing with the Ministry of Health. He refused to answer further questions about Ashley, citing privacy concerns even when offered a waiver.

The health board refused to release a Crimes of Torture Act report on Tawhirimatea in time for this story.

- NZ Herald

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