Changing inhumane conditions in our prison escort vehicles – described as ‘sweat boxes’ and ‘coffins’ – is going to take more than good will from Corrections, writes Christine McCarthy 

Opinion: One hot, 29°C, January day in 2019, 17 prisoners spent almost six hours travelling from Spring Hill Corrections Facility to Tongariro Prison, confined in metal boxes without air-conditioning, many in handcuffs, none with seatbelts.

The nurse with the job of removing one prisoner suffering from the extreme heat in the vehicle recalled that “the walls of Prisoner D’s cell were so hot it felt like touching a hot element” and she could feel the hot air coming off the prisoner and the cell.

This incident, and others like it, prompted a wider Prison Inspectorate investigation into inter-prison transfer. The resulting report was released a couple of weeks ago. 

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Prisoners can be transported to manage prison populations, attend court, be taken to hospital, attend rehabilitation programmes, and prepare for release. Journeys can consequently be quite short or as long as six hours or more.

Last year there were 7697 inter-prison transfers. Correspondence I have had with prisoners indicates that their experience of these prison transfers is often stressful, disruptive, and unsettling, and this is supported by official reports.

Such reports quote prisoners describing their transport cells as small cages, sweat boxes, and coffins.

One prisoner said: “We’re like dogs in those little travel boxes.” Another older inmate described the trucks as the “most disgusting transport in the world— you’re stuck in about a metre and a half square, you’re handcuffed, you can’t hold on to anything, you’re travelling at 100km/h and it’s the noisiest environment you have ever heard.”

Last year, the High Court determined that placing a prisoner “in a situation where he was forced to urinate on himself and his clothing” when he was transported was a breach of his rights under Section 23(5) of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

These are not new experiences for prisoners. As long ago as 2007, an Ombudsman report highlighted such “rigours” of prisoner transportation and described the mesh and sheet metal cages that prisoners were transported in as “claustrophobic and unpleasant”, with “no room to stand up, or to stretch the legs”.

Disturbingly, this latest inspectorate report on the matter has noted: “At the time of writing, Corrections had no policy about welfare observations or what prisoners should do if they need to urinate between comfort stops. … We note there are no training or induction requirements for escort drivers.”

Getting prisoner transfers right is important—but not just to stop obviously inhumane practices.

These transfers can facilitate access to rehabilitation programmes, bring prisoners closer to their families, and improve transitions into the community. But they can also interrupt family connections, hinder access to lawyers and support, affect getting parole, and disrupt medical treatment, including prisoners missing scheduled medication or specialist appointments.

The recommendations from the inspectorate’s report have been rightly accepted by Corrections, but then the response to the 2007 Ombudsman report, 14 years ago, also appeared to promise positive change.

Fixing things will likely need more than Corrections’ good intentions, as these persistently fail to effect improvement. Like approaches to prison architecture, we must appropriately balance humanity and security in a context where a minority (17 percent) of New Zealand prisoners have a high or maximum security classification and the clear majority (57 percent) are classified minimum or low security. 

Scrutinising the blanket exemption of prison escort vehicles from the normal safety requirements of the Land Transport Passenger Rule might be one place to start. This rule ensures safe design of public vehicles—for the rest of us.

The Council of Europe’s 2018 factsheet on the transport of detainees could inform such a review. It presents minimum safety standards and requirements for clean and hygienic transport and refers to Human Rights conventions.

None of this is rocket science. Instead it points to a need not to forget that people in prison are people, and need to be treated as such.

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