DAVID CLENDON: First do no harm

03/03/2017
It should go without saying that New Zealanders overwhelmingly think that we should not torture people. We have signed domestic and international laws committing us to that basic principle.

So when the chief Ombudsman revealed this week that the Department of Corrections had tied a mentally ill prisoner to his bed for 37 nights in a row, it was a real blow to our reputation as a nation that cares.

No-one deserves that kind of treatment, regardless of why they ended up in prison. And we should not just let that kind of behaviour go unchallenged.

Because beyond the basic premise that we should not pointlessly cause people harm, there are many reasons to have a better program for dealing with mental illness in prisons.

When former inmates re-enter society, they already face a formidable series of challenges to get back on their feet. If they leave prison even more unwell than when they entered, those challenges multiply. And it becomes so easy for people to fall back into a cycle of mental illness, hardship or violence that sees them back in prison in a short space of time.

In the long run, we as a society are better off when we invest in care and rehabilitation of former prisoners. It costs far less in the long run to invest in mental health and addiction services than it does to keep someone in prison. We are also far less likely to be victims of crime or violence when we intervene early on, rather than putting a poorly equipped ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.

Funnily enough, our new Prime Minister agrees with me on this point. He has called prisons a “moral and fiscal failure”. But he now has to defend the policies of a Government that have resulted in the blowout of our prison population, which means more costs and more damning reports into torture and ill-treatment.

National’s spin cycle was quick to respond had to this latest crisis in our prisons. They have proposed a new inspector of prisons to improve oversight and accountability.

It’s a good first step, but it doesn’t change the fundamental problem - the same people who run the prisons are still in charge of the oversight. The incentives are all wrong.

We need truly independent oversight; someone who will work with Corrections to improve their behaviour and encourage better outcomes for prisoners and staff. And we need it before National’s booming prison population makes the problem even worse.

David Clendon is the Green Party's Northland candidate, and spokesperson for Tourism, Small Business and Criminal Justice (including Courts, Corrections and Police).