4 Mar 2021

Prison guards threaten pepper spray moments after suicide attempt

7:55 am on 4 March 2021

Warning: This article discusses suicide and could be distressing for some people.

Prison guards threatened to pepper spray an inmate and then went on to put her in a headlock minutes after she'd attempted suicide, documents released to RNZ show.

Mihi Bassett

Ten days before Mihi Bassett attempted suicide she asked guards to give her poison but was assessed as not at risk Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly / Vinay Ranchhod

Auckland Women's Prison inmate Mihi Bassett tried to kill herself in January last year, after Corrections unlawfully held her for months in a segregation unit, known as the pound.

After she was resuscitated she didn't want to leave her cell and in the resulting scuffle a guard drew pepper spray but didn't carry through with a threat to use it.

Instead Corrections officers put Bassett in a headlock, handcuffed her and moved her to the support unit where they cut off her clothes and underwear with a knife to get her into a prison gown.

After the suicide attempt, guards made notes on Bassett, marking her down for "violence towards staff," which was later used to justify classifying her as a maximum security prisoner.

She was also placed on a misconduct charge because in the minutes after the suicide attempt she kicked out at guards behind her, striking one in the shins and another in the leg.

Documents released to RNZ by Manukau District Court show in graphic detail the brutality of Bassett's life in prison - and her own aggressive reaction to the treatment - including warning signs she was having suicidal thoughts.

They also show that Bassett, diagnosed with PTSD after being raped by a gang member at 17, swore at guards, drew pictures of them being hung and was overheard saying she'd like to stab one of them in the throat with a sharp pencil.

When Bassett attempted suicide in January 2020, the first guards to arrive at her cell saw her lying on her back in the shower area but waited outside, banging on the window, until they had "the correct number of staff" to unlock her cell, the documents show.

After the nurse checked her vital signs, guards attempted to move her to the Intervention Support Unit (ISU), which caters to vulnerable prisoners, but she didn't want to go.

"She actively resisted the relocation to ISU so spontaneous use of force was administered. Prisoner was placed in mechanical restraints and was moved to ISU," the incident summary report says.

Bassett was threatened with pepper spray in the minutes following her suicide attempt, the documents show.

"I drawn [sic] my pepper spray … and gave prisoner Bassett instructions to her to comply otherwise I would deploy my pepper spray," one guard's incident report says.

The pepper spray was not used and instead guards put Bassett in a 'control and restraint' hold, moving her along with her head level to their hips.

"During the controlled movement Bassett kicked me in my right leg and was yelling she could not breathe and that I was trying to choke her," another guard's report says.

"I want to smash you right now - you were trying to choke me. I'm gonna get you," the guard quotes Bassett as responding.

The reports say the Corrections officers gave Bassett the opportunity to change herself into a prison gown - as they wanted to remove her clothes for her own safety - but she refused.

"She allowed for the track pants to be removed but when it came to removing the underwear she once again became aggressive swearing and moving away from staff. The underwear were cut away using the Hoffman knife."

A month later, in February 2020, Bassett's security classification was reviewed and the scuffle following her suicide attempt was listed as a major reason for keeping her in maximum security.

"The prisoner deliberately assaulted two officers by kicking them which resulted in spontaneous use of force," the review says. "The recent assaults during her movement to the Intervention Support Unit indicates a significant high level of risk to staff."

Prison staff were aware of her declining mental health and suicidal thoughts, according to the documents..

Ten days before Bassett attempted suicide, she and another prisoner wrote a letter pleading to be let out of the pound.

"All we are basically asking for is for help of some sort to bring some humanity back and to feel safe," the letter says. "We want so much to feel like a part of society where our minds ain't in turmoil in this … no hope, no aspiration, negative wing. Please move us."

Bassett was told her request had been turned down and her reaction was noted: "Prior to entering her cell she stated to staff to just give her poison. Review Risk Assessment was completed and prisoner was deemed not at risk."

Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility in Wiri

Auckland Women's Prison, where Mihi Bassett was unlawfully left in 'the pound' for months. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

RNZ has also obtained the management plan for Bassett, which gives a rare and detailed glimpse at how Auckland Women's Prison handles high security prisoners.

The document shows the prison planned to hold Bassett in the pound "indefinitely" - breaking the law governing how, and how long, prisoners are held in the pound, officially known as D Wing.

Inmates usually stay two weeks in the pound and if they are to be kept there for longer than 14 days, the prison must obtain the chief executive's permission. To keep a prisoner there for longer than three months, a judge must visit the facility.

The management plan says Bassett can have one five-minute phone call a week.

"Rules for making a call: Bassett will be cuffed with her hands behind her back before she leaves the cell. Bassett will be escorted to the prisoner phone in D Wing where she will be instructed to sit on a chair. Staff will dial the number for Bassett and hold the receiver to her ear for the duration of the call."

The call will be terminated if any rules are broken, the plan says.

The management plan lays out what Bassett had to do before being fed.

"Bassett will move to the back of her cell, lie face down, interlock her hands behind her head, place one foot over the other then bend her legs at the knees. Staff will then place her meal in the hatch and close it," the management plan says. "If Bassett does not follow these instructions this will be taken as a refusal, the hatch will not be opened and the meal will not be offered again."

Records show Bassett went hungry many times after refusing to comply with what she saw as a humiliating ritual.

She was also forbidden to leave her cell for education or rehabilitation.

"Prisoner Bassett shall not be allowed access to any programmes or education that requires her to come out of her cell."

The documents show that Bassett was treated harshly because Corrections considered her a dangerous woman with "an extremely violent history" of "anger and aggression".

The reports say that while at times Bassett showed a "degree of compliance" and the ability to control her anger "she can switch and become non-compliant and aggressive".

Corrections believed her convictions meant that "if she was to escape the public would be at high risk of harm from her".

Bassett is serving 10 years for her role in a 2014 home invasion. She believed her then-girlfriend's nephew was being sexually abused and she, along with friends, broke into a house and attacked the man they thought was a paedophile, as well as his family.

Manukau District Court judge David McNaughton

Judge David McNaughton last month described Auckland Women's Prison's treatment of Mihi Bassett's as 'inhumane', 'cruel' and 'degrading' Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

But the offender notes obtained by RNZ also show another side to Bassett. She asks for more than a weekly phone call because she is anxious about Covid-19 and wants to talk to her family.

There are notes describing her as smiling, positive, cheerful and settled; of her discussing The Bachelorette TV show and making gifts for her partner.

"She has made a book out of paper," one of the file notes says. "She has folded it into the shape of a heart. She stated that she wants each poem to show every time each fold is open."

Bassett asked the guards if they celebrated Valentine's Day. "She was informed that we didn't. She stated that she grew up celebrating it. She laughed when I told her she is so lovey dovey and that I didn't have a heart."

In a meeting with her case manager, she discussed whakapapa, tikanga and completed her pepeha and her links to Maungapohatu, the sacred mountain of Tūhoe, and Piripari marae.

Manukau District Court Judge David McNaughton last month described the treatment of Bassett and other women at the prison as inhumane, cruel and degrading and accused Corrections of a concerted effort to break their spirits.

Judge McNaughton said that Bassett's mental decline was "harrowing" and would have been obvious to any interested observer.

The details of Bassett's treatment were revealed after she and other inmates appeared in court for setting fire to prison property at Auckland Women's Prison in October 2019.

Corrections said staff often had to make split-second decisions about what safety tactics to use and sometimes even drawing pepper spray was enough to deter an inmate.

"While we acknowledge this may sometimes come after traumatic incidents, our staff cannot allow an individual to remain in a situation where they can continue to harm themselves and or others, especially if they are showing violent behaviour."

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: online chat (3pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-11pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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