Decision reserved in prison strip search case

7:12 pm on 21 March 2018

Two of New Zealand's most high profile prisoners had their day in court today.

Sliding barred doors and lock

Inside the maximum security prison at Paremoremo in Auckland Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham Farrelly

High profile prisoners Arthur Taylor and Phillip John Smith have taken the Department of Corrections to the High Court in Auckland, alleging a strip search of 209 prisoners - including Taylor and Smith - at Paremoremo was unlawful.

An attack on two officers by four maximum-security inmates on 19 October, 2016 prompted a strip search over the following two days.

Prison management said some of the attackers had been drinking home brew, and shanks made from the bracket of a prison-issued television were used to stab a staff member's head, hospitalising them.

Strip searching was necessary to find any other weapons or home brew ingredients, they said.

Management believed it was an organised attack and gang-related because three of the four attackers belonged to the same gang.

Residential manager Solomon Nui told the court the intelligence report for the assault was released in the afternoon of the 21 October, 2016.

But some information was flagged at an earlier meeting to discuss the second day of strip searching, he said.

"The intelligence officer gave an indication that the theory of the gangs being involved was not supported," Mr Nui said.

But the strip search was justified because "the risk still existed that it was gang related", he said.

When Crown lawyer Kate Laurenson asked about the risks, Mr Nui said there were members of that particular gang everywhere who wanted to make names for themselves.

After the attack, all the blocks in the East Division were locked down, including the kitchen because it "has access to all the units and they can pass things through the meal trays," Mr Nui said.

But he had no specific intelligence about it, he confirmed.

Strip searches started in C block, where the attack took place, and D block. Then on 21 October, strip searches of A and B block as well as the Special Treatment Unit took place.

Mr Nui told the court there "wasn't much" that was uncovered form the strip searches, but he would have to look it up.

Acting principal corrections officer Marinus Beukes, who personally undertook some strip searches including Smith's, was also questioned whether anything was found.

He said he had not personally found anything.

In closing, Arthur Taylor said there were no reasonable grounds for anyone to be strip searched. He likened it to a house being burgled.

"You don't go authorising the search of all the houses adjacent to that property that you haven't got evidence in respect of," Taylor said.

Taylor and Smith said the strip searches breached the Bill of Rights and the Corrections Act because prisoners were not treated with humanity, their privacy was not respected and there were no reasonable grounds for believing all 209 prisoners had unauthorised items.

In defence, Crown lawyer Peter Gunn said it was lawful and proportional because of the serious nature of the initial attack. It was also a health and safety issue, he said.

"The strip search of the plaintiffs was undertaken to detect prohibited items following the assault and to ensure the safety and security of staff and prisoners."

Mr Gunn said Taylor and Smith both had access to the prison-issued televisions, and the kitchen.

Justice Peters has reserved her decision.