Dehumanising Treatment as ‘Risk Prevention’

Tie Down Bed, Auckland Prison (Ombudsman, 2017:22)

In NZ, At Risk Units hold prisoners who are ‘at risk’ of suicide or self-harm. They are environments of deprivation. In 2016, the Ombudsman’s Office reported daily routines of long prisoner lockdowns in ‘bleak’ and ‘grim’ conditions (2016a, 2016b). ARU prisoners are usually locked in a barren cell for up to 23 hours a day. Clothed in anti-rip gowns, they are watched via camera all the time, including when they use their in-cell toilet.

In an unannounced visit to Otago, the Ombudsman found an ARU prisoner who was held ‘in a waist restraint with his hands cuffed behind his back…due to his self-harming’ (Ombudsman, 2016c:17). Over two and a half months, the man had spent at least 21 hours a day in the restraint:

He was un-cuffed every two hours during the day and every four hours at night in order to stretch his muscles, take a shower or eat his meals (average three hours unlock a day). He was able to watch some TV in his cell from late afternoon” (Ombudsman, 2016c:18).

There was ‘no evidence of therapeutic intervention or psychological support…having taken place’ for this prisoner or any other in the Unit (Ombudsman, 2016c:18).

Last week, the Ombudsman (2017) reported further cases. One of a man at Auckland prison who, after three self-harming incidents, spent 37 nights (from 4pm to 8.30am) on a tie-down bed that included torso, wrist and ankle restraints. He had been restrained for just under 600 hours altogether.

Across 64 hours of observation, Ombudsman officers never saw ARU staff flex his limbs. Video footage showed an occasion when up to 14 officers crowded the cell to restrain him. The man was naked for two of the four observed restraints, and staff touched his genitalia so he could urinate into a bottle on the bed. The Ombudsman highlighted that these prolonged restraints and conditions were ‘degrading’ and ‘dehumanising’ (Ombudsman, 2017). They clearly breached the UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners as well as the 1984 Convention against Torture (UN, 1984; UN, 2015).

We often think of the Torture Convention solely in terms of ‘ticking time bomb’ scenarios – extracting information from detainees in order to ‘save the day’.  The proposition that such violence is capable of extracting the truth or proof has long been dismissed as a false hope. Even the Romans accepted that any retrieved evidence was weak, acknowledging that those subject to torture and inhuman treatment would either remain silent or lie rather than endure pain (Lea, 1878).

Instead, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatments tends to have other uses for states – as a form of punishment, a deterrence to those who might cause trouble, and a performance of state power (Stanley, 2009). Torture, and its associated violations, occur when states denigrate groups. They emerge out of vitriol and also poor training, laziness, inadequate resources.

The use of restraints, psychological pressures, electric shocks, sleep deprivation are all gaining traction (Rejali, 2007). It is a paradox of the human rights movement – as monitoring has increased, torture and inhuman treatments have developed in new ways to leave no obvious physical marks. The reason is that most states want to appear compliant to human rights norms and laws. Being labelled as a ‘human rights abuser’ is not a good look and the denial of violations is a preferred option for states (Cohen, 2001).

In response to the Ombudsman’s findings, the Department of Corrections has organised to re-interpret events.

The first reframing suggested that it was a rights-conscious approach. Tie-down beds, waist restraints, isolation, CCTV, bare cells and rip gowns ensure the ‘right to life’. The Department’s own Inspectorate recorded that, in Auckland, restraints were ‘justified’ given the escalation of the prisoner’s self-harming behaviours (Department of Corrections, 2017). The result is that the person does not die, or they may be less likely to die. But, along the way, any semblance of humanity or dignity for individuals suffering in extreme circumstances is removed (Moore and Scraton, 2013).

Second, that it is a legitimate response to perceived risk. Following media reporting, the Chief Executive of Corrections outlined that the tie-down bed was a ’response to an imperfect situation with a very extreme person’, a prisoner who was ‘highly manipulative’, who ‘calculates’ and self-harms ‘to get to hospital to get access to drugs’ (Weber, 2017). There was little empathy for a prisoner with suicidal intention. Instead, his ‘at risk’ status was rearticulated as a matter of security and control.

Third, that it is a health-based approach. The Chief Executive emphasised that restraint decisions were made in relation to a range of health professionals. He noted that health staff had been involved in the decision to ‘keep him in Corrections and to manage him in the way that we did. So, they were all part of the plan we put together’ (Radio NZ, 2 March). The Ombudsman’s report tells a different story – that restraints were used as a ‘behaviour management tool’ rather than a health intervention, while neither his psychologist nor psychiatrist were aware of his extensive restraint. These health professionals had not visited him during ‘tie down’ periods and the psychiatrist presumed that he would have two officers for company. In fact, he rarely saw anyone (Ombudsman, 2017:29). It is an illusion of care.

Dehumanising treatment has been officially renamed as ‘care’ or ‘risk prevention’ or ‘treatment’.

In the midst of these interpretive denials (Cohen, 2001), ARU prisoners – who are, often, seriously ill or in great distress – are subject to conditions and treatments that undoubtedly increase their fear, anxiety, depression and despair (National Health Committee, 2010; Scraton and Moore, 2005; Wakem and McGee, 2012). Who would admit suicidal thoughts in these circumstances?

There is a need for change. Questions have already been raised. Are Corrections capable of dealing with those with serious mental health problems, or self-harming behaviours (or to provide health care, more generally)? How have long lock-downs become so normalised? Isn’t it about time we had an independent Inspector of Prisons?

Many of these will require significant institutional and cultural shifts. Yet, quicker improvements can occur. The Chief Executive has just reduced the number of ‘tie-down beds’, to four. Given their potential for misuse, many other countries refuse to have them. We should do the same.

Elizabeth Stanley is a Reader in Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington. She is the author of ‘Torture, Truth and Justice’. This piece was first published by ‘The Spinoff’, 6 March 2017


Cohen S (2001) States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering Cambridge: Polity.

Department of Corrections (2017) Summary of Corrections Inspectorate Case Review of the Management of a Prisoner at Auckland Prison’s Maximum Security Unit and the Use of a Tie-Down Bed Wellington: Corrections.

Lea H C (1878) Superstition and Force 3rd ed., Philadelphia: HC Lea.

Moore, L and Scraton P (2013) The incarceration of women Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

National Health Committee (2010) Health in Justice: Kia Piki te Ora, Kia Tika! – Improving the health of prisoners and their families and whānau: He whakapiki i te ora o ngā mauhere me ō rātou whānau Wellington: Ministry of Health.

Office of the Ombudsman (2016a) COTA Report: Report on an Unannounced Inspection of Corrections Service Invercargill Prison Under the Crimes of Torture Act 1989, 3 May, Wellington: Office of the Ombudsman.

Office of the Ombudsman (2016b) COTA Report: Report on an Unannounced Inspection of Corrections Service Manawatu Prison Under the Crimes of Torture Act 1989, 27 January, Wellington: Office of the Ombudsman.

Office of the Ombudsman (2016c) COTA Report: Report on an Unannounced Inspection of Corrections Service Otago Corrections Facility Under the Crimes of Torture Act 1989, 16 May, Wellington: Office of the Ombudsman.

Office of the Ombudsman (2017) A Question of Restraint, 1 March Wellington: Office of the Ombudsman.

Radio NZ (2017) Corrections Chief Ray Smith Defends Dept after Restraint,  Radio NZ, 2 March 2017.

Rejali, D (2007) Torture and Democracy Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Scraton, P and Moore, L (2005) The Hurt Inside: The Imprisonment of Women and Girls in Northern Ireland Belfast: Human Rights Commission.

Stanley, E (2009) Torture, Truth and Justice London: Routledge.

UN (1984) Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 10 December 1984.

UN (2015) Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules), 21 May 2015.

Wakem B and McGee M (2012) Investigation of the Department of Corrections in relation to the Provision, Access and Availability of Prisoner Health Services Wellington: Office of the Ombudsman.

Weber A (2017) ‘Very Extreme’ Prisoner Restrained to Save Life – Corrections’, Radio NZ, 2 March 2017.

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