Prisoners in New Zealand are subjected to high levels of violence, unacceptable conditions in some units and a lack of constructive activities, according to a government watchdog.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier today published the third full inspection report since his officed beefed up monitoring last year. The report looked at Christchurch Men's prison.

His office also published follow-up reports on conditions at Arohata, Manawatu and Rolleston Prisons. Fewer than half of the changes recommended had been implemented at each site, the report said.

The Ombudsman monitors prisons and other places of detention such as locked mental health wards under the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, which puts international obligations on New Zealand to ensure people held in detention are treated humanely and with decency and dignity.

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Boshier today said clear themes were emerging.

"High levels of violence, unacceptable conditions in At-Risk Units, and lack of a constructive regime for remand prisoners, are issues we're identifying at each site," he said.

At Christchurch, initial impressions of a safe and secure environment were not entirely borne out in the inspection, the report said.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier was disappointed in the lack of change at Christchurch Men's Prison. Photo / File
Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier was disappointed in the lack of change at Christchurch Men's Prison. Photo / File

The inspection team discovered that force had been used on prisoners and not recorded, and that the prison had not complied with processes to manage prisoners suspected of concealing articles, for example.

Increasing numbers of prisoners also said they felt unsafe. Conditions for prisoners in the at-risk unit - for distressed or mentally unwell people - were "unacceptable".

"The prison's efforts to improve the environment and treatment were superficial. It has been disappointing to note a lack of any real progress in improving conditions or treatment for mentally unwell and suicidal people."

Boshier said it was disappointing that many of the issues the inspection identified at Christchurch Men's Prison had been raised in the past, including in a 2013 UN inspection.

"A key reason why we publish these reports is to increase the visibility of these issues," he said.

"People in detention are among our most vulnerable citizens and we must meet international standards for how they are treated."

The torture reports were released for the first time late last year, after the Herald asked to see them as part of an ongoing investigation into autistic man Ashley Peacock, whose case was also reported on under the Crimes of Torture Act.

Corrections had initially refused to make the documents public, saying to release the reports would affect the "safety and security" of prisoners and "prejudice the maintenance of the law".

However, the Herald complained to the Ombudsman, who intervened, and Corrections had to release one year's worth of reports - with redactions.

The regime for high-security prisoners at Christchurch Men's was largely lacking in imagination and impoverished, Boshier said. Photo / 123RF
The regime for high-security prisoners at Christchurch Men's was largely lacking in imagination and impoverished, Boshier said. Photo / 123RF

Since then, the reports have been released proactively, including those written under new standards developed as part of a more extensive monitoring programme on prisons.

The report on Hawke's Bay Regional Prison found serious concerns on the high-security side of the prison, particularly with regard to safety.

And one in three prisoners at Spring Hill Corrections Facility said they had been assaulted.

Follow-up reports on Arohata, Manawatu and Rolleston Prisons were released about 12 months after their original reports, and revealed that of 17 recommendations for improvement at Arohata Prison, four had been fully and three partially achieved. Half the 22 recommendations at Manawatu Prison had been achieved and four partially achieved. At Rolleston Prison, five of the 11 recommendations had been fully achieved.

"The issues identified at these prisons are similar to those we find across the prison estate," Boshier said. "Prisoner safety and dignity, the regime for remand prisoners, and the conditions and treatment of at-risk prisoners are all areas we recommend for improvement.

"While I'm pleased that more than half of the recommendations have been fully or partly achieved, I'd like to see better progress in achieving the improvements we recommend," he said.

Minister of Corrections Kelvin Davis welcomed the reports, saying it was important that New Zealand had a watchdog able to make unannounced inspections of its prisons and take an independent view.

"If we want to reduce the prison population, we can't just lock people up – the focus has to be on rehabilitation. For this to be successful we must have the right culture in our prisons and the facilities have to be up to scratch," he said.

Davis said Corrections was making progress on addressing issues raised by the Ombudsman, including investing in new facilities at Manawatu, Rolleston and Christchurch Men's Prisons; investing $11.6 million to develop a new national model of care for at-risk prisoners, and working to better balance prisoner privacy and safety.

However, he was concerned about the review of Christchurch Men's prison.

Minister of Corrections Kelvin Davis welcomed the reports. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Minister of Corrections Kelvin Davis welcomed the reports. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"Prisoners need to feel safe so they can concentrate on rehabilitation and treatment. That's one way of reducing reoffending. There has been a change in the management team at the prison and I expect the culture to change," he said.

"I've made it clear to Corrections that I expect our prisons to be a place where people serve their time, receive the rehabilitation they require and reintegrate back into communities, not to return."