Complaints from prisoners
From early days the ombudsman was concerned with issues relating to treatment of people in detention. From the 1970s a growing number of complaints came from prisoners. These complaints were often about conditions, such as being locked into cells for long hours, inadequate sanitation and general overcrowding. Prisoners often found it safer to complain to the ombudsman than to visiting justices, which might result in a charge of laying a false complaint and punishment. After 1995 the number of investigators dealing with prison complaints had to be increased. Prisoner complaints are still a significant aspect of the ombudsmen’s work.
In 2006 New Zealand became a party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhuman Degrading Treatment or Punishment 2002. This set out principles for the treatment of anyone deprived of his or her liberty in a place of detention. All prisoners (whether sentenced or on remand) and other persons detained compulsorily, whether as patients, children or immigrants, were covered by the principles.
National preventive mechanisms
To fulfil New Zealand’s obligations under this agreement, a number of national preventive mechanisms (NPMs) were designated. These were coordinated by a central NPM, the Human Rights Commission, which included the ombudsmen, the children’s commissioner, and the Independent Police Conduct Authority.
In 1970 Sir Guy Powles took part in two major investigations into complaints from Pāremoremo maximum-security prison, north of Auckland. He observed then that society generally did not care how prisoners were treated, and that one role for the ombudsman was to ‘flagellate the public conscience’ on this issue.1
NPMs are responsible for making regular inspections of places of detention to ensure that the conditions under which people are detained are humane and that detainees are treated appropriately. Issues examined include physical conditions, activities allowed and medical services. As well as ensuring that minimum standards are observed, NPMs are expected to make recommendations for improving conditions and treatment of detainees.
Reporting on inspections
NPMs report at least annually on their work. In the case of the ombudsmen this report is made to Parliament.