22 Mar 2021

Corrections apologises, Auckland Women's Prison faces overhaul

From Checkpoint, 5:15 pm on 22 March 2021

Mihi Bassett survived a suicide attempt in Auckland Women's Prison and lived through conditions a judge has described as a concerted effort by Corrections to break her spirit. 

Auckland Women's Prison faces a major overhaul of the way it handles inmates after revelations by RNZ about the degrading and inhumane treatment of Bassett and other women at the prison.

Corrections has also issued a rare apology to Bassett over her treatment, which included being pepper sprayed in her cell multiple times, having to lie on the ground to be fed, and being held unlawfully in the prison pound for months. 

After Bassett's court case finished in Manukau today, Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis told his department its treatment of women was unacceptable. He is demanding changes to the culture and practices at Auckland Women's Prison, and all New Zealand women's prisons.

Manukau District Judge David McNaughton had criticised Corrections for the "degrading", "cruel" and "inhumane" treatment which he said was a concerted effort to break her spirit. He again strongly rebuked the department today.

Bassett got the chance to thank the judge for bringing her treatment to light. 

"I just really wanted to say thank you for digging into this whole situation, because it was pretty gnarly and I just feel [without] your concerns this wouldn't even be happening."

Technically, this was a sentencing - Bassett was charged with arson after burning prison property in 2019 - but what was really on trial was the way Auckland Women's Prison treated her.

Justice McNaughton found the prison held Bassett in the pound unlawfully, subjected her to pepper spraying which went well beyond reasonable force and made her carry out a humiliating ritual lying on the ground just to get food. 

"The measure of a civilised society is how it treats its most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens. And we judges know from experience that Māori women prisoners are amongst our most vulnerable and disadvantaged and damaged citizens."

Mihi Bassett at the Manukau District Court

Mihi Bassett at the Manukau District Court in February. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

The treatment pushed Bassett to attempt to take her own life in January 2020.

"To learn that the serious physical and psychological abuse is occurring in a women's prison is profoundly disturbing. And that it is happening - or that it was happening - here in our own backyard in Manukau, just a few minutes drive from this court, is especially disturbing for a judge who sits here."

Bassett was supported today by her mother, her grandmother and her brother.

They say they accept the apology from Corrections but were appalled to find out how she had been treated. 

"It's disgusting to hear that that is taking place and that's something she was going through but now that it is all out in the open hopefully things can change," Bassett's brother said.

Her mother said she had no words.

"I didn't think that sort of thing happened in New Zealand. As I keep saying, my daughter is naughty but she was sentenced to go to prison not to go to prison to be punished. And so to find out all this stuff was happening to her, yeah. She's healing and thank goodness she's strong."

The judge decided that no time would be added to Bassett's sentence for the arson charge. 

He said the fire was lit in protest at the conditions, was quickly extinguished, and posed no serious danger to others.

"In short, you have suffered enough."

Manukau District Court judge David McNaughton

Manukau District Court Judge David McNaughton. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Criminologist and professor of indigenous studies Tracey MacIntosh was there as a support person for Bassett when senior Corrections managers personally apologised for the way she was treated in prison.

She said it was a rare victory and provided real hope for change.

"We don't get many of these days in these sorts of places - as someone who looks at decarceration strategies I recognise that an apology is necessary but not sufficient - it's what we do know that makes the difference."

Corrections will now be forced to make changes 

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis has a new report from the Prison Inspectorate showing serious failings at the prison.

He wants a detailed plan for how the prison will improve its treatment of women inmates and an urgent review of all women's prisons.

Bassett is serving 10 years for her role in a violent home invasion.

Corrections said in court that she had been violent or threatened violence to prison staff 65 times and had 42 disciplinary hearings, but the judge saw strong and positive elements in her character too.

"You are resilient, you are a survivor. So despite everything that's happened to you in prison and despite everything that happened to you in your life before that, and despite the crimes you have committed, underneath all of that there is a good person. You deserve a better life than this. So when you finish your sentence, look for the good in other people, reconnect with your whānau."

Bassett is now in Arohata in Wellington which she said was a far safer environment for her than the Auckland prison.

She said she had enrolled in prison rehabilitation programmes now and hoped to be out in two years to help look after her nan.