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Infocus - Mt Eden Prison Youth Inmates

by Selwyn Manning.

Auckland’s Mt Eden Prison has become the focus for a damning account over care of teenage inmates.

The attack was issued by children’s Commissioner Roger McClay at the Child and Family Policy conference which ended in Dunedin on Friday.

The spotlight turned onto government policy and the pace of Youth Justice reform with a call to advance as soon as possible the completion of special units for youth offenders.

Mr McClay said at the conference it was “clearly inappropriate for our young people to be incarcerated and dehumanised and driven to suicide in adult prisons”.

Since 1991, 13 teenagers have committed suicide in prison, official records show. Eleven of these suicides occurred in Mt Eden Prison.

Mt Eden Prison has a reputation among inmates as a hostile, inhumane, place which drives even hardened criminals to depression and despair.

There is no argument that offenders such as the late 15 year old David Tufala, who committed suicide in Mt Eden in 1997, must be punished, incarcerated and rehabilitated if at all possible for their crimes of viscousness. For the record, David Tufala tormented his victims during an armed robbery in Manukau City by squirting them with what he said was lighter fluid and then flicking lighted matches at them.

Tufala’s was rightly recognised by the Courts as a viscous crime, attracting the demands of our society that he be withdrawn from liberty and locked away.

But for Tufala, once taken from the streets of south Auckland - where he enjoyed a sick sense of esteem in the eyes of his associates, and forever lifted by the progressive severity of his crimes - once inside Mt Eden Prison Tufala soon realised the reality of the consequences of his horrible actions when outside.

Inside those grey stone walls, alone, Tufala faced the hideous culture of “The Mount”. It drove this tough-boy to decide his only option was to choose death at his own hand. The manner of how this youth-come-child went about his suicide, demonstrated the determination he possessed to get out of his sorry situation. It was chilling.

Tufala has not been alone in his fear. Damien Meyer (17) was so distressed after learning that he would be transferred from Manawatu back to Mt Eden Prison, that, in June last year, he killed himself.

Even adult gang members have been proven to be big suicide risks once separated from the security of gang affiliates. While big and brave in numbers, powerfully built and physically strong, these men often break down in tears when left alone in a police cell or left to their consciences once inside prisons like Mt Eden. Reports into adult inmate suicides and police complaints authority inquiries show often these men are emotionally retarded.

The deaths of Tufala and Meyer are two examples of eleven youths who decided on death over life while incarcerated at Mt Eden Prison.

Children’s Commissioner Roger McClay insists our institutions must provide a level of care for young people who have committed serious criminal offences which is appropriate to their age and culture. He implores: “It has to be humane. Young people have a right to be secure and safe.”

It was with this public interest issue in mind that I interviewed brat-pack National MP Roger Sowry on the matter of youth justice facilities in 1997.

It was to the then Social Welfare Minister’s credit that he blueprinted a new wave of youth justice care. He detailed to me how children held at Weymouth’s Northern Residential Centre under care and protection orders would soon be kept separate from those under youth justice orders. He explained of secure units and residential care homes set up in a network throughout the country where disturbed children and young teens would be provided with programmes designed to equip them with skills necessary to make it in life.

Progress was clear. The Minister had the ambition to advance plans for six new youth lockup units around the country.

The residential facilities began to pop up almost immediately. In Manukau City, Social Welfare bypassed council Resource Management Act application procedures by setting up in buildings on department owned residential land in Manurewa’s Claude Road and in Pakuranga.

The Council was outmanoeuvred and unable to consider considerable outrage among its residents over having disturbed children and offenders living in their neighbourhood.

Fine tuning is inevitable, public outcry by neighbours is understandable, particularly after the heavy handed manner by departmental officers when establishing the Manukau City residential facilities. But children are clearly being given a better chance of a future. And one has to surely weigh up the benefits to society as a whole. Such facilities surely take a proactive fence at the top of the cliff approach to youth crime, rather than an ambulance at the bottom knee-jerk response.

The first of the six secure youth lockups is set to open in Hawkes Bay shortly. The units will provide schooling and training for young offenders, and will strive to provide rehabilitative programmes so inmates will have improved opportunity on release.

A youth prison is said to be planned for a site on Manukau City’s Wiri Station and Roscommon Roads. This site was initially designed to accommodate a Men’s Adult Prison but due to outrage from the local community and affronted Tangata Whenua [a prison was considered insensitive because of a Crown execution of a local Rangitira, Te Takanini, on the site last century], a compromise was made to site a youth facility on the land.

However, the Auckland region’s youth lockup is not planned to open until 2002. Until then, “The Mount” is the place for young serious offenders.

What guarantees are there that young people locked away from the public eye inside Mt Eden Prison, will not end their lives in the same way as David Tufala and Damien Meyer?

Difficult to decipher.

Roger McClay says in Tufala and Meyer’s cases prison staff had inadequately assessed the youths suicide risks. Files recording alcohol abuse, depression and suicide attempts had not been checked. He is reported as stating: “New Zealand’s correction service must now establish a mechanism to absolutely know and share all relevant information about young people entering prison.”

However, finally, after all the inquiries and reports and the deaths, and the public outcry and public meetings, the Corrections Department is now considering training staff on suicide prevention, and youth inmates at “The Mount” will be kept in a separate youth wing away from adult criminals.

The year 2002 is 902 days away. Will the Corrections Department’s efforts be enough to minimise the number of deaths among Mt Eden Prison’s youth inmates?

Time will tell.

© Scoop Media

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