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Calls For Legal Action Following Death In Custody

Calls For Human Rights Legal Action Following Death In Custody


The lawyer of 19-year-old Shannon Leonard, who hanged himself in Mt Eden prison on 3rd December, said at a public meeting on Saturday that the time had come to ask whether the conditions in the prison were a violation of human rights.

Another speaker, international law expert Professor Jerome Elkind, said that if all legal remedies in local courts were exhausted, a complaint could be brought before the United Nations Human Rights Committee if New Zealand was found to be breaching any international legislation to which it was a signatory.

They were two of the numerous speakers at an emotional meeting called by the New Zealand Howard League for Penal Reform at the Methodist Aotea Chapel in Auckland.

Shannon Leonard's death has caused a number of local lawyers, including Marie Dyhrberg and Barry Hart, to call for a stepping-up of prison monitoring and inmate outreach programmes, and to closely examine the possibility of human rights legal action.

Minister of Corrections, Matt Robson, said yesterday in an interview with IRN that the prison is not up to legal standards, and said replacement jails needed to be built, a process that could take at least another four years.

Peter Williams QC, president of the Howard League, said that the Department of Corrections "must be held fully responsible and legally blameworthy" for the death, and in a furious speech he also claimed that the NZ Human Rights Organisation had refused to look at cases involving this country's prisons.

Mr Williams also criticised the penal system of which Mt Eden is a part, and noted that the new privately-run Auckland Central Remand Prison, which is to pay the Department of Corrections $50,000 following the escape of a prisoner during visiting hours, would pay no penalty if an inmate commited suicide.

Shannon Leonard's lawyer, Dr John Robertson, said Mt Eden jail was an environment in which predisposition for suicide was heightened in the psychology of inmates.

"I can find nothing in the law that advocates the breaking of the human spirit. In that cell I saw nothing to prepare a young person for life outside," said Dr Robertson, before criticising the impending 'tougher sentencing' legislation.

"Could tougher sentences mean deprivation and cruelty become part of the penal code?"

Dr Robertson said the prison had a living reputation that is alive and well.

"It is growing year by year, fed by the deaths of young men and women."

Shannon Leonard's last few days were spent in solitary confinement in a windowless nine-foot by six-foot cell with no books and a bucket for a toilet.

He was serving time for burglary and on remand for aggravated assault, following an incident in which he allegedly threw a mug of boiling water over a prison guard.

After five months of intimidation from other prisoners Leonard had requested a transfer to solitary confinement, where he received no visitors and spent 18 hours a day for five days before hanging himself.

Senior lecturer in forensic psychiatry at the University of Auckland, Sandy Simpson, said that according to a recent study he co-authored, there are over 200 acutely mentally ill people in New Zealand prisons.

Mr Simpson also said that around 20% of prisoners have suicidal thoughts, and that the services available to prisoners suffering from mental health problems were overstretched and under pressure.

Perhaps the most moving remarks of the evening came from a man who had supervised the deceased some years ago in an organisation aimed at diverting young offenders from a life of crime.

"I knew young Shannon Leonard. Young Shannon had a lot to offer. Young Shannon was not a mental case. Young Shannon had qualities," he said.

Speaking after Saturday's meeting, Peter Williams QC said he was overwhelmed by the support and the tremendous passion of members the public who had turned out.

"I'm sure that of this good will come: the closure of Mt Eden Prison and a change of policy in the Department of Corrections, with more of an emphasis on helping people and less on ruining people."

Asked about the prospects for proceedings following Shannon Leonard's death, Mr Williams said that he was sure there would be some civil rights legal action.


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