Concern over services for disabled inmates

As disgraced Olympian Oscar Pistorius settles into prison life after killing girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, concerns have been raised about how disabled inmates are managed in New Zealand's jails.

At least two high-profile Kiwi killers with leg amputations are serving life sentences - Graeme Burton and Dean Mulligan - but others with various physical disabilities also have to cope with life behind bars.

"The prisons do their best, but they haven't got the facilities for their needs. Their resources are too stretched to give specialist care," human rights advocate and Wellington lawyer Michael Bott said.

He believed Pistorius, a double amputee, might fare better in a New Zealand prison than in the notorious South African jail system, but said disabled inmates were vulnerable to exploitation by other inmates. "They are naturally an easy target."

Bott had a number of clients in jail with disabilities, including Burton, although he was unable to comment about his case.

He believed all prisons needed high-dependency units to ensure disabled and frail inmates had appropriate care while living close to their support networks, like the Rimutaka Prison unit opened nearly two years ago in Wellington.

Before that opened, he dealt with an inmate who was wheelchair-bound with Parkinson's disease, which the prison struggled to manage, such as prison guards forced to help him on the toilet.

Rethinking Crime and Punishment spokesman Kim Workman also believed prisons struggled to reach their set standard of providing a level of service for disabled inmates comparable to what they would get in the community because of a lack of specialist staff.

"I think the Department of Corrections does the best it can with disabled inmates but it would be difficult to say they receive the same treatment as someone might receive in the community.

"In most cases, the judiciary would take that into account."

A recent example was in January last year when elderly Hamilton double amputee Lance Wilson Willets, 72, narrowly avoided jail for child sex offences. The fact Willets was wheelchair-bound was one of the reasons Judge Peter Siller gave in sentencing him to a year's home detention rather than prison.

Department of Corrections director of offender health Bronwyn Donaldson said there were "a handful or dozens" of inmates with physical disabilities in the total prison population of 8700. They accessed disability support services through the prisons' primary health service.

Many factors were considered when managing the placement of disabled prisoners, including age, health concerns, disabilities and family support, but most prisons had units with disability-friendly cells, including wheelchair-access showers and rails to assist them getting into the shower, toilet or bed.

She said it planned to expand Rimutaka's 20-bed unit by 10 beds and was also looking at options to establish high-dependency units elsewhere over the next three to five years.

Ramps were recently installed in a 20-bed unit in Waikeria Prison near Te Awamutu, in Waikato, to make it more suited for elderly inmates.

Burton, who is imprisoned in Auckland, is currently without his artificial leg because it has been sent to the Waikato Artificial Limb Centre for repairs.

His right leg was amputated above the knee after he was shot by police following his rampage in the Wainuiomata hills near Lower Hutt in January 2007, when he murdered Karl Kuchenbecker, 26.

He was fitted with a prosthetic leg at the end of that year after delays over tight security for his visits from Auckland's maximum-security Paremoremo Prison to the Auckland Limb Centre.

Mulligan, from Feilding, was jailed in July 2011 for life with a minimum non-parole period of 15 years for murdering Whanganui sickness beneficiary Marice McGregor by bludgeoning her over the head with an iron bar. His leg has been amputated below the knee.

The Dominion Post