The Government department responsible for prisons says it will stop restraining women in labour or past 30 weeks pregnant. It also promises to stop handcuffing prisoners who are in hospital after giving birth. Despite that, the Chief Ombudsman is stepping in to investigate why basic changes around prisoner treatment continue to be blocked.
Judge Peter Boshier, chief ombudsman, announced the investigation on Tuesday May 18. It will look into how the Department of Corrections has responded to repeated calls for reforms aimed at improving conditions for prisoners.
Earlier this month, reporting by Stuff showed women prisoners in labour were being restrained - despite Corrections policy saying this is not allowed. The revelations followed two earlier, separate reports from the Children’s Commissioner into the Mothers with Babies Unit in prisons. The reports, from 2019 and 2020, found multiple incidents of women being handcuffed before, during and after giving birth.
Judge Boshier said he wanted to know why problems continued to exist across the whole prison network, and what Corrections is doing to address them.
"In many areas, I have not seen significant and sustained improvements to prisoners’ welfare and rehabilitation," he said in a statement.
"This is despite concerns about conditions being raised by me and others at different levels of the department, and report after report being released calling for change."
The Ombudsman has previously criticised the use of restraints on prisoners giving birth. It undertakes inspections of prisons as part of New Zealand’s responsibility to uphold the United Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT). New Zealand ratified OPCAT in 2007.
The current Ombudsman investigation is focused on three areas:
- Treatment and conditions of people held in all correctional facilities
- Opportunities for constructive activity, including education, employment, rehabilitation and reintegration programmes for prisoners
- Performance monitoring and review processes which impact how complaints are managed, who oversees segregation orders, how incidents involving force are reviewed, and other operational or incident reviews.
A preliminary timeframe for the investigation’s completion has been set for mid to late next year.