Prison officers' actions justified in fatal struggle

BELINDA FEEK
Last updated 17:41 05/12/2012

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

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

In Coroner Peter Ryan's findings, he said Harris's death was due to a combination of factors, including the restraint by officers in his cell.

Harris had threatened prison staff and other inmates on multiple occasions, and also damaged his cell.

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

On the day of his death, officers were sent to his cell after Harris was seen on security camera trying to harm himself. However, on checking, Harris was walking around in a state in a mood described as lucid and abusive.

Forty minutes later, officers were again sent to his cell after he was seen to slump onto the floor.

Six officers went inside and attempted to apply "control and restraint techniques", while further officers were called. 

Ryan described the scene inside the cell as a "seething mass of humanity" due to the large number of Corrections Officers "swarming around him" trying to calm him down.

After a struggle that lasted about five minutes, and with Harris in a prone position on the floor, he stopped breathing.

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

The other contributing factors were the fact Harris engaged in a "strenuous and prolonged resistance" with officers as they tried to restrain him, he was morbidly obese, had a "massively enlarged heart" and suffered from asthma.

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

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

A new mental health screening tool introduced in June improved Corrections' ability to detect mental illness in prisoners at an early stage, she said.

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- Waikato Times

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