'Ball dropped' on jails' mentally ill

LYN HUMPHREYS
Last updated 05:00 01/03/2014

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Mentally unwell Taranaki prisoners' rights are being breached because of a breakdown in the provision of psychiatric reports to the courts, defence lawyer Julian Hannam says.

His complaint to forensic services has the full backing of Taranaki's District Court Judge Allan Roberts, who says the system is failing.

At least some of the delays are being blamed on the closure of New Plymouth Prison.

"My biggest concern is if a person with extensive mental health issues is remanded in custody waiting for a report they are getting no treatment," Mr Hannam said.

"Prisons have a practice nurse but not a mental health nurse.

"In my view it is a breach of their human rights and the Bill of Rights."

Section 38 reports are called for by the courts when a person charged with an offence is believed to have mental health problems."

A forensic psychiatrist decides whether the person is fit to plead to the charge and if they are, recommends a suitable sentence.

Under the Criminal Procedures (Mentally Impaired Persons) Act 2003, the section 38 report is to required to be submitted to the courts within 14 days from the time it is called for.

But from September to mid-January five defendants had been affected by adjournments in the Taranaki courts and there were nine adjournments in total - all because their reports had not been completed, Mr Hannam said.

In one case, a sentencing was adjourned three times.

Prior to the New Plymouth Prison being closed - in March last year - prisoners on remand with mental health issues were seen by Hamilton-based Waikato Health's forensic psychiatrists.

But since the prison closure, prisoners are mostly sent to Kaitoke Prison in Whanganui where they are more likely to be seen by the Wellington-based Capital and Coast Health forensic psychiatrists.

District Inspector for mental health, Murray Cochrane, of New Plymouth, told the Taranaki Daily News yesterday he had informed the Ministry of Health of the delays he had been made aware of.

He believes the holdups "are solely because our prison has closed" and because prisoners were now mostly sent to Kaitoke.

Mr Cochrane has told the ministry the problems could be resolved if remand prisoners for whom a section 38 report was needed were sent to a Hamilton prison rather than to Whanganui.

They would then come under the same service that they had already had contact with, Mr Cochrane said.

The issue was most recently raised in the New Plymouth District Court this week during the sentencing of Keegan Bentley Jones, 19, for the aggravated robbery of a taxi driver.

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Jones, who was remanded in custody since his arrest three months ago, was one who had his sentencing postponed because his psychiatric report was late.

Mr Hannam said during Jones' time in custody he was placed in an at-risk cell with the light on 24 hours a day and nothing in the room besides a mattress.

Judge Roberts told Mr Hannam he fully supported his concerns. The judge said he believed the system was failing and backed Mr Hannam writing a letter of complaint to forensic services at Capital and Coast Health and Waikato Health.

"It is not acceptable," the judge said.

"Somewhere the ball is being dropped. The reports are going into a black hole."

Mary Anne Gill, spokeswoman for Waikato Health, said the two forensic services had only recently become aware of the problems and were working together "as best we can".

"Obviously this is an issue," Ms Gill said.

The Department of Corrections declined to comment, saying it was for the DHBs to do so.

- Taranaki Daily News

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