From hell to cells

Crim­i­nals with ad­dic­tion or men­tal health is­sues would be treated first as pa­tients, not pris­on­ers. Ed­ward Gay re­ports.

Sunday News - - FRONT PAGE -

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.’’

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