Critics of double-bunking in prisons say a sex attack at Otago Corrections Facility is symptomatic of a much larger problem.

Published in Otago Daily Times

Brian Lewis Mitchell (30) was sentenced to more than 16 years imprisonment in 2018 and had been sharing a cell with his victim for just three days when he violated him, the Dunedin District Court heard last week.

He had three and a-half years added to his jail term.

While such cases were rarely seen before the court, Corrections said prisoners had a variety of means to complain about physical abuse, from in-cell alarms, to the Ombudsman or Crimestoppers hotline.

But Male Survivors Aotearoa national advocate Ken Clearwater said it was naive to think inmates would voluntarily make disclosures about such attacks.

“You’ll get beaten up for being a nark,” he said.

As of last week, 164 of OCF’s 421 prisoners were double-bunked — more than a third.

Mr Clearwater described the situation as “appalling”.

“To me, it’s inhumane,” he said.

Mr Clearwater raised similar concerns about the issue in 2017 when sex offender William Katipa sexually assaulted three cellmates while serving a term of preventive detention.

He said nothing had changed since then.

Corrections admitted shortcomings in their handling of the Katipa case and the New Zealand Herald reported in 2018 that two of the victims had received payouts from the department.

However, Corrections’ chief custodial officer Neil Beales made no such concession in the recent Mitchell case.

He said staff used the diagnostic tool “Shared Accommodation Cell Risk Assessment” to assist them with double-bunking decisions, but he stressed it was not a substitute for personal judgement.

“The assessment captures a range of information about the person, including their age, security classification, offending history, history of imprisonment, gang affiliation, notable physical characteristics, mental health concerns and any other special needs,” Mr Beales said.

“While a prisoner’s previous convictions are considered during the assessment process, there are a multitude of other factors that are relevant, and a sexual conviction does not necessarily preclude a prisoner from being double bunked.”

University of Otago senior Law lecturer Dr Simon Connell said ACC would cover the victim for any physical or mental injuries resulting from the incident, which might limit the scope for a potential lawsuit.

However, as was the case with Katipa, further legal action was possible, he said.

Mitchell’s cellmate was using the shower in June last year when the violation took place.

The defendant threw a towel over the victim’s head and forced him down over a toilet.

“Dat what I like,” he said as he committed the crime.

Despite threats from Mitchell the victim sought medical attention and police later became involved.

JustSpeak director Tania Sawicki Mead said it was not only sex offenders who posed a risk in a double-bunking scenario.

“What the evidence tells us is that it’s not a safe or appropriate place for anyone to be kept,” she said.

The recently released New Zealand Crime and Victims Survey showed the public believed the most important part of the criminal justice system was to help offenders stop reoffending, rather than punishing those who commit crimes or deterring them from future offending.

Ms Sawicki Mead said the status quo in prisons did not correspond with that attitude.

Prisons were full and double-bunking had become the norm.

She said that would not be altered until the Government made fundamental changes that would significantly reduce the rates of incarceration.

They would have to look at alternatives for those sentenced to short prison terms and/or the threshold for those seeking bail, she said.

“There’s a clear understanding the current system is failing everyone,” Ms Sawicki Mead said.

By Rob Kidd
Published in Otago Daily Times
15 July 2020