Government asked to reduce overpopulation of Maori in prisons

New Zealand to report to the UN Committee Against Torture

Venkat Raman
Auckland, August 4, 2023

The United Nations Committee against Torture has asked the New Zealand Government to reduce the number of Māori in prisons saying that it is disproportionately high.

The Committee has also asked Wellington to improve the conditions of people in detention, noting that transformational change is needed.

Pretrial detention, a lack of time limits for pretrial detention and juvenile justice are among the other concerns raised by the Committee.

It said that the New Zealand government should implement fully all the suggestions made by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care’s recommendations.

While noting the numerous strategies and programmes to reduce the disproportionately high number of Māori in the prison system and to improve their detention conditions, the Committee expressed its concern that Māori, particularly women and young people, represented around half of the prisoner population while constituting only 17% of the total population.

“It also recommended that the State takes measures to ensure adequate, culturally sensitive, qualified and accessible legal services are available to Māori,” the UN body’s press release said.

Royal Commission of Inquiry findings

The Committee noted that in 2018, the establishment of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into historical abuse in State care and the care of faith-based institutions and that some survivors have received ex-gratia payments and apologies from the State party.

“However, it expressed its profound concern about the Royal Commission’s findings, which revealed the extent of physical, psychological and sexual child abuse in these institutions. It was seriously concerned that the inquiry’s recommendations have not yet been implemented and that, as a result of this inaction, no individual has been investigated or held accountable for the numerous allegations of torture and ill-treatment in such institutions,” the press release said.

The Committee has urged New Zealand to provide victims with full redress, including compensation and rehabilitation. The Committee has asked the New Zealand Government to report back on priority areas, including conditions of detention and Māori incarceration rates, by 28 July 2024.

New Zealand will appear before the Committee in 2027.

Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt said that the root causes of the high incarceration rates of indigenous people can be found in great part in the suppression they experienced and continue to experience through colonisation and its impacts.

“Our justice system must not perpetuate this intergenerational harm on Māori. The transformation of our criminal justice system is overdue and action is urgently needed,” he said.

Problems in New Zealand prisons

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said that the UN’s findings echoed the concerns that he has repeatedly raised in his inspection reports, including in prisons and health and disability facilities.

“I agree with the UN Committee which highlighted that overcrowding, poor conditions and staff shortages remain a problem in many places of detention and criticised the use of spit hoods and pepper spray,” he said.

Mr Boshier said that the government should consider the Un recommendations seriously.

“These concerns are not new but they are serious. I am committed to monitoring the issues raised by the UN Committee, including critical areas like the provision of appropriate care in places of detention and harmful practices such as use of force, restraints, and solitary confinement,” he said.

Chief Children’s Commissioner, Judge Frances Eivers said that the UN has called again on the New Zealand government to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14, in line with the Convention Against Torture, and to end the practice of remanding children into custody.

She also called for an end to the use of secure care and the use of force, including restraints in youth justice residences.

“Our monitoring work as a National Preventive Mechanism consistently shows concerns about the way our justice system works for young people, especially mokopuna Māori who continue to be disproportionately represented.  What was apparent through the hearings at the UN and the subsequent recommendations is that justice system serves as a pipeline to prison,” she said.

Under the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, combined with the Crimes of Torture Act 1989, four NPM monitoring agencies undertake regular visits to places of detention, aimed at preventing torture and ill-treatment including in prisons, police cells, military detention, health facilities and child and youth residences.

As the central NPM, the Human Rights Commission coordinates the monitoring agencies and liaises between the NPM, the government and UN bodies.

The National Preventive Mechanism

The National Prevention Mechanism comprises five agencies, including the Human Rights Commission, the Ombudsman New Zealand, Children and Young People’s Commission, the Inspector of Service Penal Establishments Ombudsman, and the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA).

Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Saunoamaali’i Karanina Sumeo, the Chief Children’s Commissioner Judge Frances Eivers, the Inspector of Service Penal Establishments Alec Shariff, and representatives from the Ombudsman New Zealand, presented to the UN Committee in person. The IPCA did not attend the UN Committee review.

The New Zealand Government signed OPCAT in 2007. Unlike other human rights treaty processes which deal with human rights violations after they have happened, OPCAT is primarily concerned with prevention.

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