Teenagers have described being pinned to the ground and getting locked up for 23 hours a day at a youth justice residence with an atmosphere "like the Hunger Games".

The Herald tracked down former residents of Child, Youth and Family's Te Puna Wai o Tuhinapo facility in Christchurch after discovering young people had been unlawfully detained for weeks on end in its seclusion wing during 2014.

Documents obtained also showed:

• Staff used "inappropriate force" against young people.
• Secure care was used as punishment.
• Some young people were stripped and put in suicide gowns.
• A "significant number" of teens should not have been in seclusion at all

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One young woman, now 21, said while she was at Te Puna Wai in 2013 she had ended up on the ground while being restrained by a male staff member after she grew angry and threw a phone against a wall.

"He was an idiot," she said. "That was s***. A male should not have been doing [that] to a female. But yet I got in trouble for that, not him."

The woman said she had also spent time in secure care, once for 14 days after hitting another resident. She had not been before a judge during that time.

"When I was in there, it was for 23 hours a day. I was strip-searched, chucked in a cell and the only time I came out was for kai. I didn't know about a judge."

She was 17 at the time.

Another young woman, now 24, when she had been placed in secure care at the facility during 2009, it was only for serious behaviour, such as threatening to set the residence on fire.

"They only ever kept me in there a few days. At the time, it sucked. Once you're in secure, there's nothing worse. They take all your mattress and everything out of your room. It's the worst place ever," she said.

The woman said most of the staff were reasonable, but it could become a volatile situation very quickly.

"When you're in there, it was like the Hunger Games. It was us versus them, the staff. And because they were adults they knew more than us, so really it was their game, and we were trying to beat them."

Looking back, she said most of the staff were genuine, but there were a few "bent screws" who would break the rules or give young people a hard time.

What the documents said

The former residents' accounts relate incidents similar to those described in the documents obtained by the Herald under the Official Information Act, in the wake of a poor review of the facility by the Office of the Children's Commissioner.

Summary notes from an October 16, 2014, phone conference that included chief social worker Paul Nixon stated three young people had been in secure care since September without having their detention reviewed.

"These are therefore illegal detentions," the note states.

It also said secure care was incorrectly used as punishment for behaviour.

Secure care is considered a form of segregation, and is monitored by the Office of the Children's Commissioner in its watchdog role under the Crimes of Torture Act, as it can affect a detainee's mental and physical health.

Sign-off from a judge is needed if secure care detention is to exceed 72 hours.

The law also requires a daily review of each young person by the staff member in charge of the unit, to ensure they do not stay any longer than absolutely necessary.

CYF was unable to confirm how long the young people referred to were in secure care or if they were informed of the review failure, saying more time was needed to find records.

The documents also revealed that staff used non-approved methods of restraint and there are repeated references in records of young people "going to ground" while being restrained.

"Staff see themselves as needing to be seen to 'win' situations with young people," the phone conference note states.

CYF said it had since changed its restraining hold, used in a model called "Non Violent Crisis Intervention" because it was too easy for a young person to lose balance.

"It was Child, Youth and Family policy that every care should be taken to avoid this. It was raised as a concern at the time because the regularity of it happening showed a need for urgent refresher training for staff," a statement said.

"While not physically harmful for the young person; and not regarded as the use of inappropriate force; it was not considered best practise."

CYF said separate to the issue of "going to ground", since December 2012, 10 staff faced disciplinary action for excessive force, with the most recent in November 2015.

Children's Commissioner wants more funding

Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft told the Herald there had since been significant improvements at the facility, but the reported breaches were serious and unlawful.

"Secure care is not something used lightly. The regulations are non-negotiable, and while not a breach of primary legislation, still have the full force of the law behind them," said Becroft, who is a former principal Youth Court judge.

"Therefore, any breach of these regulations is illegal."

He will soon ask the Government for more money to enable inspections of residences every six months instead of 18, and to get beefed-up inspection powers.

"I want to get right to the bottom of exactly what is done, day-by-day. Our office has taken it very seriously. But our senior staff desperately want to [inspect] more regularly. But we are unable with current funding to do that."

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley said as part of an overhaul of care for young people, which will see CYF replaced with a new Ministry for Vulnerable Children in April, the future of residences would be considered, including if "community-based options might be more appropriate, keeping safety in mind".

CYF was unable to confirm how long the young people referred to were in secure care or if they were informed of the review failure, saying more time was needed to find records.

It was now working through records and if it was found that the regulations breach caused harm "appropriate action will be taken accordingly".