Deaths in prisons

Corrections has a duty of care to all people in prison, which we take very seriously.

While our prison population has fluctuated in recent years, the complexity of people coming into our management has changed. Our staff are managing a growing number of people, including a greater proportion of defendants remanded in custody, who often have mental health and disability needs. Our research shows that people in prison have higher rates of complex personality traits, and mental health and substance use disorders than the general population. It is estimated that 62 percent of those in prison have met the diagnostic criteria for either a mental health or substance use disorder within the last 12 months, and 91 percent will meet these diagnostic criteria at some time over the course of their lives. Our research also suggests that these psychological disorders can go undetected and untreated prior to prison.

For a variety of reasons, both individual and systemic, people in prison may not have had their health needs detected or addressed in the community. When a person enters prison, they undergo an induction process by custodial and health services. This includes a reception health assessment undertaken by health staff, which assesses each person’s physical and mental health needs, including whether they may be at risk of self-harm or suicide and whether they require a referral to a prison doctor or other services to address immediate general and/or mental and addictions health care needs. Staff also assess people for a risk of self-harm and suicide whenever they become aware that a person’s circumstances have changed, or their behaviour is a cause for concern.

Our Health Services staff work hard to ensure all people in prison receive a standard of healthcare that is reasonably equivalent to that available to the public. Every New Zealand prison has a health centre, and primary healthcare services are delivered by our Health Services team. This includes General Practitioner services, nursing, basic dentistry, physiotherapy, disability and mental health and addictions services. Where secondary or tertiary healthcare services are required, referrals are made on the same basis as any person in the community.

Any death by suicide is a tragedy that has lasting impacts on the person’s loved ones and staff who have worked with them. Self-harm attempts can also have a significant, long-lasting impact on both people in prison and our staff who care for them.

We are committed to preventing incidents of self-harm and unnatural deaths in prison and take our duty of care to people extremely seriously. The causes of suicide are complex and people in prison are a known high-risk group, so we make every effort to support and improve people’s mental wellbeing, ensure their physical safety, and to treat people with respect and dignity.

We have made significant efforts, particularly over the past seven years, to prevent suicide and self-harm events in our prisons. This includes substantial investment in the infrastructure of Intervention and Support Units, in staff training, and in mental health and addiction support.

We have:

  • Launched the Mental Health and Reintegration Services Programme. This resulted in the introduction of contracted Improving Mental Health Service (IMHS) clinicians into 16 prisons and four community corrections sites to support people with mild to moderate mental health needs.
  • Introduced Packages of Care clinicians. These clinicians provide up to six sessions of support and are currently contracted to deliver services to 11 prisons. Introduced trauma counsellors and social workers to all women’s prisons.
  • Invested in ten residential supported living beds (six in Auckland and four in Hamilton) to provide support and accommodation to people leaving prison with mental health or cognitive issues.

We have also established Intervention and Support Practice Teams (ISPTs) to provide earlier assessments, develop individualised plans and provide therapeutic interventions and support that is flexible to a person’s changing needs. Initially set up at three prison sites (Christchurch Men’s Prison, Auckland Prison and Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility), these services were expanded to Spring Hill Corrections Facility, Rimutaka Prison and Mt Eden Corrections Facility in 2021 and Otago Corrections Facility in 2022. Corrections is in the process of developing an additional service at Waikeria Prison.

We also developed our Suicide Prevention and Postvention Action Plan 2022-2025 in 2022. This plan recognises the importance of preventing suicide and our commitment to take deliberate and targeted action to address this issue and effectively support those in prison.

Since its development, we have:

  • Continued to deliver primary mental health training (Mental Health 101) to custodial and community corrections staff, and the introduction of this programme into the Custodial Officer Development Pathway for newly hired custodial staff.
  • Developed an online dashboard to provide oversight over the occupancy of our Intervention and Support Units (ISUs) and the people supported within these units.
  • Provided specialist training for general health and mental health staff (including contracted mental health providers) to enhance their ability to assess and effectively manage suicide risk.
  • Progressed improvements to the physical environments across a number of our Intervention and Support Units (ISUs).
  • Implemented reflective supervision support for custodial staff working across a number of ISUs and the piloting of supervision support for community corrections staff.

Data set for deaths in prison – national and by prison

Quarterly statistics for deaths in prison are available to view below. The data provided for the current financial year is as at 31 March 2024, and is subject to change until the full-year process has been completed.

Corrections classifies deaths in custody by the following definitions:

  • Unnatural deaths – deaths found by the coroner to be caused by homicide, suicide, accidental causes or a drug overdose, or where there is sufficient evidence to suggest to Corrections that this is the most likely cause of death.
  • Natural deaths – where a prisoner has died of natural causes.

All deaths in prison are subject to an internal incident review, investigation by the independent Corrections Inspectorate, and are also referred to the Coroner. The Inspectorate and Coroner both complete a robust independent assessment of each incident providing commentary and recommendations regarding the care and treatment of individuals. In addition, the Coroner confirms the cause of death.

Download deaths in prisons data XLSX, 446.1 KB