Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Corporate Defenders of Human Rights?

Amid the horror of Liam Ashley's death in custody, the report from the Inspectorate of the Department of Corrections into that tragic event reveals a contrast in regard for human rights between state and private sector agencies.

The main story is, of course, the awful convergence of a vulnerable 17 year old, stupid murderous intent, and institutional bungling. The report uncovers a professional assessment that Liam's killer was likely at some stage to murder simply for the notoriety and that Liam had scored 25 points (considered to be a`high' score) on a Departmental test to detect vulnerability. Added to the cocktail was misinformation given to the Chubb escorts and a lack of intervention from the third inmate who was being carried in the prison van's compartment the day Liam was killed.

An interesting point highlighted by the report though is the apparent contrasting regard held for the position of young people in custody between the Department of Corrections and its contractors Chubb. Article 37(c) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that;

Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with
humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the
human person, and in a manner which takes
into account the needs of persons of his or her age. In particular,
every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from
adults unless it is considered in the child’s best interest
not to do so and shall have the right to maintain contact
with his or her family through correspondence and
visits, save in exceptional circumstances

Via reservations to this Convention the emphatic wording of the UN's drafting becomes watered down when it filters down to New Zealand domestic law. Our law provides for separation of adults and under 18 year olds when they travel to and from prison"where practicable". Through various happy accidents though the contract between Chubb and the Department defined all those prisoners under 20 as being "at risk" and therefore worthy of automatic segregation during transport by Chubb.

Sadly we can't annoint Chubb as corporate defenders of human rights as the way Chubb employees understood their jobs meant that expediency and other prisoner categorisations took priority. Young inmates did sometimes travel with their adult counterparts in the same compartment of a prison van with other prisoners being preferred for placement in the segregated parts of the van. This was the case on the day Liam was killed.

Monday, 18 December 2006

Mince Pies and Rights Abuses

The New Zealand Herald published a story on 15 December reassuring its readers of the ordinariness of the Christmas menu on offer in our prisons this year. Aside from the small number of people who will be bitterly disappointed at the absence of gruel and stale bread on the lunch table at Rimutaka Prison, the majority of the community would not need the reassurance if they bore in mind at least two of the most recent failures of our penal system.

Most recently, Liam Ashley's death was contributed to by the Department failing to afford him protections demanded by his age and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. That Convention demands, amongst other things, that young people and adult offenders be segregated in penal institutions. In Liam's case that seems to have gone by the by in our mission statement bearing, out-sourced public prison service.

Not so long ago the government were declared to be in breach of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 by the High Court for their treatment of inmates subjected to "administrative segregation" (solitary confinement by another name). The breaches in Attorney-General & Ors v Taunoa & Ors were held to amount to inhumane treatment and ranged from the conditions in cells falling well short of proper standards of hygiene required for a person living in one place for 22-23 hours per day to the absence of any screening of prisoners who might be mentally unwell and particularly vulnerable to isolation.

Given what sometimes happens in our jails, we should not begrudge inmates a mince pie for Christmas lunch.