Use of restraint in prison, youth facilities ‘alarming, disappointing’

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The Human Rights Commission is telling prisons, young people’s residences and health and disability units to reduce, if not eliminate, the use of seclusion and restraint.

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(file photo) The report carried out for the Human Rights Commission found seclusion and restraint practices are used too often, for too long. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

The Commission has released a follow-up to a highly critical report published in 2017 that criticised the high use of seclusion and restraints in prisons and other facilities.

The report, Time for a Paradigm Shift found a high use of segregation and restraint remained, and in some areas, had increased in the past three years.

It found seclusion and restraint practices are used too often, for too long, frequently without a clear reason by agencies, and more frequently against Māori and Pacific peoples.

Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt said there had been some progress among some of the agencies but overall the picture remained alarming and disappointing.

“I was really, really disappointed reading this report,” he told Morning Report.

Paul Hunt is the incoming chief Human Rights Commissioner.

Paul Hunt, Chief Human Rights Commissioner. Photo: University of Waikato

Hunt acknowledged problems of overcrowding and understaffing, and noted there was a degree of commitment to change but that needed be ramped up.

“Some things can just stop. I really don’t understand why … we can’t stop solitary confinement for children and young people. There’s so much evidence that this is seriously damaging on particularly young people and disabled people.”

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The data suggested gender and race bias and there had to be suitable training on sexism, racism and unconscious bias, and on de-escalation techniques.

“In consolation with Māori we have to figure out therapeutic alternatives to restraint and solitary confinement.”

Key findings:

  • Women in prison were segregated at a far higher rate than men (255 instances per every 100 women prisoners, compared to 147 instances per every 100 men prisoners)
  • Māori women were segregated for longer and at a far higher rate than other women
  • Māori are grossly over-represented in seclusion units (51 percent of the total number of people secluded in Health and Disability facilities)
  • Use of the ‘secure care’ rooms in the Youth Justice facility more than doubled. Its use in a care and protection residence reduced slightly.
  • Restraint use in health and disability facilities included instances of very lengthy holds: 1463 minutes (about 24 hours) in one case; 290, 125 and 100 minutes in others.

The research was carried out Dr Sharon Shalev of the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford, at the invitation of the Human Rights Commission.

The research found some positive developments since 2017, including a national effort to reduce the use of seclusion and restraint in health and disability facilities, an end to the use of ‘tie down’ beds in prisons and a greater commitment to Māori culture and values in the care of children and young people by Oranga Tamariki.

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“The overall picture, however, is disappointing and many of the issues highlighted in my 2017 report have not been addressed,” Shalev said.

“Too many people continue to be held for too long in sparsely furnished rooms and cells, with limited access to fresh air and exercise, and with little access to meaningful human contact.”

Shalev pointed to the use of seclusion in the Youth Justice facility having more than doubled, including 22 stays lasting eight days or longer during a six-month period in 2019.

She said record keeping was “outrageously bad” in the agencies, with the exception of the Department of Corrections.

Shalev said it was unclear by women, and Māori women in particular, were ending up in seclusion more often. “I think sometimes what happens is instead of being seen as vulnerable they are being seen as disruptive. Being put in a cell that is retraumatising them, making things much worse, they react to that, then the prison reacts to them and it just goes on and on in this vicious cycle.”

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