Ombudsman considering investigation into prison mental health

Chief Ombudsman Judge Peter Boshier describes mental health in prisons as one of his greatest concerns

The Ombudsman is considering launching an investigation into the state of mental health in prisons, saying the care of mentally ill prisoners is "not good enough".

Judge Peter Boshier, who took over the Ombudsman role in December 2015, said that after his appointment he began reading reports of prisoners who had committed suicide.

He said he found it “incomprehensible” that prisoners were in a position where they could take their own lives, and scoping work was now being completed into whether to initiate an investigation into the care of mentally ill prisoners.

“Now, I accept that many of these people are really ill and I accept that if they are determined to kill themselves then perhaps they will - but I just feel that we’ve got a job to do, those of us who are bestowed of the care of the vulnerable to do more than we are at the moment. It’s not good enough at the moment.”

“It’s good for me to signal that this is one of the greatest areas of my concern,” Boshier said while talking to Newsroom for a wide-ranging piece on the role of the Ombudsman.

He said mental health care was expensive and did not have a high-profile like other areas of the health system but, from his time working within the Family Court, he was aware of how vulnerable people could be.

“It follows that in prisons, where there’s a high percentage of mentally ill prisoners they’re not treated as well as they should be.”

Boshier’s comments come after his office released a scathing report last month about the use of tie-down beds and restraints in prisons.

He described the general management of at-risk prisoners across the country as substandard and detrimental to their well-being. The use of excessive restraint was also in breach of the UN Convention Against Torture.

In one extreme case, a prisoner who was self-harming was restrained for 16 hours a day over 37 consecutive nights.

Mental health is undoubtedly a huge factor within prisons.

In a recent opinion piece, Corrections chief custodial officer Neil Beales noted almost 91 percent of prisoners have a lifelong diagnosis of a mental health or substance abuse disorder, with 62 percent having some issue in the past 12 months.

A “comprehensive plan” to address increasing demand for mental health services included a $300 million redevelopment of New Zealand’s maximum security facility, alongside an extra $14m in mental health services.

Prison reform advocate Roger Brooking was respectful of Boshier, calling him the most effective Ombudsman in some time. But he was doubtful anything would come from an investigation, as there had already been about a dozen that had changed nothing, he said.

“I would argue another investigation is a complete and utter waste of time, because they don’t pay any attention to the reports.”

An inquiry into the record high prison population and record high Maori incarceration rate would be more beneficial, Brooking said.

Corrections director of prisoner health, Bronwyn Donaldson, said any decision made by the Ombudsman would be respected.

She said a study last year on substance use and mental health found prisoners had significantly more issues than the general population.

Following the study, as part of a two-year pilot, mental health clinicians will be deployed to 15 prisons and four community corrections sites to work directly with prisoners.

"The emphasis is on supporting offenders to stabilise their mental health so they can better participate in rehabilitation activities including programmes and employment opportunities," Donaldson said.