From hell to cells
Criminals with addiction or mental health issues would be treated first as patients, not prisoners. Edward Gay reports.
SOMETIMES Michelle Kidd’s job is just to sit in court with a defendant, waiting for their case to be called. Other times, she is the only person in the world willing to listen and help them navigate the often bureaucratic and inhumane justice system.
This year, a judge asked Whaea Michelle, as she is known, to go down to the cells at the Auckland District Court and sit with a distressed woman who had just threatened to throw herself from amezzanine floor.
A few years earlier the woman hadwon a scholarship to an Ivy League university but, partway through, had tried to take her own life. She was hospitalised before returning to New Zealand.
Now in her 30s, the woman has been diagnosed with autism and borderline personality disorder. Her life has spiralled out of control, to the pointwhere she has been trespassed from hospital and the threat to end her life at court was a desperate attempt to get her case put before a judge. The scar tissue tracking her arms is a reminder of her previous attempts on her own life.
‘‘Why do you hurt yourself, darling?’’ Kidd had asked.
She answered: ‘‘I’ve got demons in my head . . . when I hurt myself, it stops.’’
Kidd says peoplewith mental health problems should not be the responsibility of the police or the justice system. ‘‘It’s a health issue – the only reason why it becomes a police problem is because no one else is responding.’’
Until recently, the Auckland woman was being held in prison. Authorities had no other option but to handcuff a guard to each of her arms to stop her self-harming.
Kidd is a long-time supporter of a new proposal that would create a secure hospital to treat people whose mental health or alcohol and drug addiction has been behind their criminal offending.
Sitting in her office at the Auckland District Court, she is surrounded by reminders of those who she was able to help escape the downward spiral, others she couldn’t.
Lawyer Ron Mansfield is the author of the proposal for what he calls a Custodial Medical Dual Diagnosis Unit.
He hopes the unit would put an end to ‘‘the revolving door’’ – a vicious, seemingly endless cycle of addiction and mental health issues, offending, prison, and release.
It is a drain on the justice system, police time, court time and prison beds, not to mention the personal cost to offenders and victims.
‘‘We just put them back into the same environment where they became ill – untreated and unsupported,’’ says Mansfield.
‘‘The health system is letting them down and they’re becoming a justice issue. The police are being left to pick up the pieces.’’
He says the unit would assess and treat lowlevel offenders with mental health, drug or alcohol issues. The information would be used by judges to make decisions about where the defendant is held before trial and afterwards.
Mansfield says while the unit would have doctors and mental health professionals, it would bemanaged by the police, but would operate as an alternative to police cells and remand prison. Judges could also use it as an alternative sentencing option to prison.
A 2012 report by the Independent Police Conduct Authority found that of the 27 people who died in police custody between 2000 and 2010, 14 had a history of self-harm, 13 were affected by alcohol, and nine by drugs. Five were in custody for the sole purpose of being detoxed.
Mansfield doesn’t blame the police. ‘‘My observation is that they do a fantastic job with people in crisis generally.’’
He says people with underlying mental health issues or coming off drugs should not be put in a police cell to get better. ‘‘It’s a concrete bunker with a stainless steel bed. It’s a pretty raw environment, raw and cold.’’
Mansfield acknowledges the unit will have a hefty price tag but that needs to be seen in the context of the ongoing cost to victims, offenders and their families. ‘‘The price of doing nothing is just unacceptably high.’’
Mansfield’s proposal has been sent to Justice Minister Andrew Little, whose office has not responded to requests for an interview.
But the Government has invested in mental health in the justice sector. A unit of 50 beds for inmates with mental health issues and 18 beds for those with acute needs are part of the $300 million revamp of Paremoremo prison. Another 100-bed unit is being built at Waikato’s Waikeria prison. Mansfield says the Custodial Medical Dual Diagnosis Unit would work alongside these initiatives.
Police Association president Chris Cahill says a police cell is not the right place for a person with mental health problems. Police ‘‘should be dealing with the bad people’’ – not the ongoing care of people with mental health issues. ‘‘The answer is not to train the police better . . . There needs to be more support for people before they reach crisis-point.’’ He’s also broadly supportive of Mansfield’s proposal. ‘‘Anything like this that can break the pattern has got to be worth a look.’’ The walls of Michelle Kidd’s office at the Auckland District Court are dotted with photos, artwork and thank-you cards. A stack of boxed Christmas cakes leans next to her desk, donated by one of the trustees to be handed out to families. Funded by Te Rangimarie Charitable Trust, her job title is Te Kaihono ki te Rangimarie: one who works towards peace. While talking to the Sunday News, she had to dash off to support a womanwhose mentally-unwell son had stabbed her the day before. The son had recently been put on a new medication. That’s a normal morning. By her door sits a painting of a character with an aggressive, contorted face. It’s the main picture on this page, and the personification of the demons that the artist was fighting. That man was typical of the hundreds she’s helped: an alcoholic with a police record that ran to more than 40 pages and whose childhood included 12 foster homes where he’d been abused. He was constantly in and out of court for minor offending andwhen not in trouble with the law, he wouldwalk the streets. ‘‘He was lonely – hewould see these little fairy people and they would follow him.’’ The man was well known around Auckland and would sometimeswash in the font at St Patrick’s Cathedral in the city. He ended up living on the street and drinking methylated spirits to deal with his demons. He’s since died. Kidd said Mansfield’s proposed unit would have helped this homeless man, like so many others. ‘‘It would stop the churn.’’