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Officers' actions played role in prisoner's death

Last updated 05:00 06/12/2012

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A coroner has found the death of a Waikeria Prison inmate was partly due to excessive restraint by prison officers - but that it was justified.

Nicholas Ward Harris, 38, weighing 192 kilograms and diagnosed as morbidly obese, died in his prison cell on January 9 last year after a five-minute struggle with officers.

In coroner Peter Ryan's findings, made public yesterday, he said Harris's death was due to a combination of factors, including the restraint by officers in his cell. Harris had been threatening toward prison staff and other inmates on multiple occasions, and had also damaged his cell.

He was remanded in custody after being arrested on December 28, 2010, for wilful damage during a domestic violence incident and had been bailed on several occasions, but would reoffend.

On the day of his death, officers were sent to his cell after Harris was seen on security camera trying to harm himself.

They found him walking around in a state described as lucid but abusive. Forty minutes later, officers were again sent to his cell after Harris was seen to slump to the floor.

Six officers went inside the cell and tried to apply "control and restraint techniques", while extra officers were called.

Mr Ryan described the scene in the cell as a "seething mass of humanity" because of the large number of Corrections officers "swarming around him", trying to calm him.

The officers were concerned that Harris may have been attempting self-harm, after earlier threats. After a struggle that lasted about five minutes, and with Harris prone on the floor, he stopped breathing.

Mr Ryan said he was satisfied the officers' actions were "appropriate and reasonable". The officers did apply body weight to Harris, which Mr Ryan ruled was a contributing factor to the asphyxia that resulted in his death.

Other contributing factors were that Harris engaged in a "strenuous and prolonged resistance" as officers tried to restrain him, he was morbidly obese, had a "massively enlarged heart" and suffered from asthma.

Corrections northern regional manager Jeanette Burns said the department would review the coroner's findings and respond appropriately.

"If changes are required to training and procedures, we will make them," she said.

The new Mental Health Screening tool, implemented in June, increased Corrections' ability to detect mental illness in prisoners at an early stage so it could stop it escalating, she said.

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- The Dominion Post

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