Inspectorate report finds many prisoners likely to have experienced solitary confinement

A significant new report has found that many New Zealand prisoners are managed in isolation, with potential profound and long-lasting physical and psychological effects.

The independent Office of the Inspectorate | Te Tari Tirohia today released a report into the management of prisoners who have been separated from the prison population and are unable to mix with other prisoners.

Chief Inspector Janis Adair says this issue has long concerned her. “The effects of segregation, solitary confinement, isolation, separation, and any other form of restrictive imprisonment, however this is described, demands the closest of scrutiny by oversight agencies.”

“This report is a call to action to refresh, redesign and reimagine relevant policies, procedures and practices that operate in New Zealand’s correctional landscape when managing individuals who need to be separated from the prison population.”

The report makes seven overarching recommendations. These include that: ”Corrections must recognise the profound isolation experienced by segregated and at-risk prisoners, including that many are likely to be subject to solitary confinement as that term is defined by the Mandela Rules (the UN standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners).”

Ms Adair has been heartened by the response of the Department of Corrections, which has accepted the report’s recommendations and begun to progress work.

The Separation and Isolation report is the outcome of a thematic inspection by the Office of the Inspectorate, in which all 18 New Zealand prisons were visited.

It found that between 1 October 2020 and 30 September 2021, more than 5,000 prisoners (29% of those held in prison during that time) experienced a period of time during which they were unable to associate with other prisoners. These prisoners had been separated from the mainstream population for a range of reasons.

“We found that many of these prisoners would likely have experienced solitary confinement and some prisoners would have experienced this for a number of months or years,” said Ms Adair.

“While solitary confinement is a legitimate tool of prison management, there are well-established risks to the prisoner’s health and wellbeing especially if the isolation is prolonged or where the prisoner has mental health or other vulnerabilities.”

“This is not a challenge unique to New Zealand and segregation is, and ought properly to be, a concern for jurisdictions across the world. This report will be of interest domestically and also to international audiences, given New Zealand’s obligations under the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.”

The Office of the Inspectorate operates under the Corrections Act 2004 and the Corrections Regulations 2005. The Inspectorate, while part of the Department of Corrections, is operationally independent.