Locking teens up for 23 hours a day in Mt Eden prison 'unacceptable' - minister
Young prisoners at the privately-run Mt Eden prison have been kept in their cells for as long as 23 hours a day, leading to fears that someone could die if changes aren't made.
Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga says he is concerned about keeping young people locked up for unacceptable periods of time, but said prisons were meant to be "hard places".
The Mt Eden Corrections Facility, run by private prison operator Serco, has also been singled out for its lack of dedicated youth facilities in the Ombudsman's annual report for 2014/15.
An inspection in April 2014 had revealed young prisoners were let out of their cells for an average of five hours a day.
Despite recommendations from that report that Corrections review its policy, surprise visits in late 2014 and early 2015 revealed the time out of cells had "reduced considerably", with an average of only one to two hours a day.
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The report said young people in detention were "extremely vulnerable", and keeping them in their cells for too long could lead to deaths.
"Monotony, reduced environmental stimulation and social isolation, can be extremely distressing and potentially fatal."
The report said "renewed and urgent action" was needed to address the problems, while Corrections should also consider developing a dedicated youth unit at Mt Eden.
However, Corrections had indicated to the Ombudsman it had no plans to set up a youth unit.
FALLING DOWN RANKINGS
The report comes as Mt Eden slid down to the bottom of the latest Corrections prison rankings, after being rated top in five previous reports.
Allegations of organised fight clubs and contraband issues emerged after recordings of incidents at Mt Eden were posted online, while a number of inmates have also made accusations of mistreatment
The Department of Corrections took over control of the prison in July after the allegations were revealed.
Labour corrections spokesman Kelvin Davis said keeping young people in their cells for long periods of time was likely to damage them and hinder their rehabilitation.
"When you're talking about young people, 18 and younger, they need longer out and about.
"They're still developing emotionally and to be locked up for that amount of time in a small cell probably with somebody else, it's just not good for them and it's pretty bleak."
Davis said there "absolutely" needed to be a separate youth facility for prisoners at Mt Eden.
"Their sentences generally tend to be shorter but we don't want them to become more damaged even though they're in there for a shorter period of time."
Mt Eden's drop to the bottom of the latest prison rankings reflected the "intensity and regularity" of problems at the facility, he said.
Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga said it was not acceptable for young people to be kept in their cells for too long, and young offenders at Mt Eden were now getting more time out.
He was concerned about any potential fatal consequences, but said prisons were "first and foremost about protecting the public" from criminals and violent offenders.
"That's the nature of our prisons...they are hard places."
There was currently "no demand" for a separate youth facility at Mt Eden, Lotu-Iiga said.
Lotu-Iiga said his previous support of Serco and its running of Mt Eden was based on its performance in Corrections prison rankings.
"I had confidence when they were at the top, clearly they've gone down - that [support] was subject to the information I had at that time."
The chief inspectorate's report into Mt Eden would be "key" to any decisions about Serco's contract, but he did not know when it would be publicly released due to Serco challenging it in the High Court.
"I'm hoping soon but it is subject to legal action, we'll see how it goes."
Corrections northern regional commissioner Jeanette Burns said the department's management team had lifted the standard of operations at Mt Eden since it took over in July.
Offenders aged 17 and under were now allowed out for between three-and-a-half to five hours a day, Burns said.
Young people were held on remand at Mt Eden for an average of 24 days, and were moved to a prison with a dedicated youth unit if sentenced to imprisonment.
Corrections had increased the range of activities for youth prisoners at Mt Eden, such as gym and exercise time, while they were trialling the concept of a "youth champion" to support young prisoners.
A Serco spokeswoman said laws preventing youth prisoners from associating with adult prisoners, and remand prisoners mixing with sentence prisoners, placed "significant pressure" on the prison to make sure they were not out of their cells at the same time.
"Staff managed a programme of rolling unlocks to ensure different classifications of prisoners were held separately."
Serco had proposed establishing a dedicated youth unit to give young prisoners greater flexibility, but it was declined on the basis that youth prisoner numbers were expected to decrease.