Whanganui Prison conditions and its treatment of a transgender prisoner have come under fire from Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier.
A recent Ombudsman's report on conditions at Whanganui Prison concludes that the Department of Corrections has failed to follow up on a number of recommendations made in 2018.
Boshier's report stated that during the follow-up inspection in September last year, his team visited all units and spoke with a selection of prisoners, managers and staff across the site.
While many positive observations were made by the inspectors, including a reduction in double-bunking at Whanganui Prison, there were 20 recommendations that had not been achieved or only partially achieved.
"The team looked for progress in implementing the recommendations made in 2018 and identified additional issues that needed addressing.
"My inspectors provided initial verbal feedback to the prison director and members of the leadership team on September 17, 2020, outlining initial observations."
Following the inspection, the team requested further information from the facility and engaged in further analysis of data. As a result, 13 repeat recommendations and one new recommendation were made following the 2020 visit.
Corrections national commissioner Rachel Leota said the department welcomed the inspections and the independent oversight they provided.
"It helps to ensure that people in prison are treated in a way that reflects their needs and supports them to make changes to their lives and stop committing crime," Leota said.
"However, the nature of the reports does not recognise the hugely challenging work that prison staff do every day to keep people in prison safe and change their lives."
Boshier's report highlighted the use of "dry cells" as alternative accommodation for at-risk prisoners as a practice that should be halted immediately.
"Dry cells are a desolate and barren environment for prisoners who are already vulnerable.
"I do not consider it is ever appropriate to put at-risk individuals into cells that have no toilets and no drinking water."
Leota said Boshier's concerns were acknowledged by Corrections but there was sometimes no alternative.
"We wholeheartedly agree that vulnerable prisoners should not be accommodated in a dry cell when the intervention and support unit is full, however, the alternative would mean moving the person to another prison which could significantly impact support they may be receiving from their friends and family, destabilise them further and exacerbate their mental distress."
Bashier's report also expressed concern about staff awareness of LGBTQI+ issues at Whanganui Prison.
"Although Corrections has developed a strategy and training to address this, I consider more work and awareness of LGBTQI+ issues is needed."
The report commended Whanganui Prison's implementation of an anti-bullying strategy, low rates of voluntary segregation at the prison and an increase in constructive activities for remand accused prisoners.
Leota said Corrections had responded to the Ombudsman and work had already begun on following up the new recommendations.
"Balancing our obligations, challenges and competing priorities against the time and resources available means we must make difficult choices about where to focus our efforts," she said.
"We have 4100 custodial staff who show up to work in prisons every day to keep New Zealanders safe and help the people we manage to change their lives."
New Zealand signed up to the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) in 2007.
The Chief Ombudsman is a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) under OPCAT, meaning he monitors prisons and other places of detention (like health and disability facilities) to ensure they meet international human rights.