22 Feb 2021

Minister seeking details about 'inhumane' prisoner ruling

6:27 pm on 22 February 2021

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis is not taking a judge's ruling that inmates at Auckland Women's Prison were treated in a "degrading" and "inhumane" way at face value, and wants more information.

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Kelvin Davis (file photo) Photo: RNZ / Patrice Allen

Manukau District Court Judge David McNaughton made the stinging ruling when assessing whether inmate Mihi Bassett should have her sentence extended for arson at the prison in 2019.

In it he said Basset and fellow inmate Karma Cripps - who were gassed in their cells and forced to perform a humiliating ritual in order to be fed - were subject to a "concerted effort to break their spirit".

In his ruling Justice McNaughton said Corrections broke its own rules and regulations multiple times in the treatment of Bassett and Cripps.

He said the women's evidence was "powerful and compelling" and he had no reason to doubt it.

But Kelvin Davis said these were still allegations and he had asked Corrections for their side of the story.

Amnesty International executive director Meg de Ronde described the details in the ruling as "incredibly distressing".

"How can we ever imagine that women and men will be able to integrate back into our society and be good members of our community when the people who should have looked after them have treated them so horrifically. We really need to take this seriously," she said.

The ruling confirmed treatment exposed by RNZ last year, including that the women had to remove their underwear in front of male guards in order to get clean pairs, and were, at times, denied toiletries and sanitary products.

Justice McNaughton said the use of Cell Buster pepper spray to force them out of their cells was "excessive", and a practice of making them lie on the floor to receive food was "inhumane".

He also ruled that Corrections acted unlawfully when it held Basset in a segregation unit, known as "the pound" for four months, after lighting a fire in protest of having bin liners removed.

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A cell at Auckland Region Women's prison. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

De Ronde is calling for an independent review.

"This could potentially amount to torture if it was found that Corrections indeed was using these practices to punish these women and trying to get compliance with particular behaviours. That would be unacceptable and it would be breaking the conditions under which they're allowed to lock people up", she said.

Davis said he had gone to Corrections for their account of what happened.

"When they went to that court case they were there to give evidence in terms of the arson charges, then there were a whole lot of other allegations made against Corrections and they didn't really have an opportunity to present that side of the story to the judge", he said.

Davis said, while there had been an admission that behaviour escalated "on both sides", he had been told that allegations inmates had to undress in front of male guards were false.

"I've been assured that that practice is not happening, and that's why I say there are two different accounts to what's been said, and so I need to find out for myself exactly what the facts are", he said.

Greens Corrections spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman said there needed to be far more transparency and accountability.

"We've had this ruling now, but it's incredibly rare for people as marginalised as women prisoners to get access to this level of judicial oversight of their treatment.

"I think all the indicators are there that something is still really wrong in our prisons", she said.

National's Corrections spokesperson Simeon Brown said the judgement "speaks for itself", and the Minister needed "to take responsibility to ensure that the Corrections system is keeping in line with his Hōkai Rangi strategy, which is designed to try and make sure that our prison system is more humane.

"He's the one that's gone around the country heralding those changes, but he needs to ensure that it's actually following through, and that there's actually action, not just words".

Kelvin Davis said he expected Corrections to come back to him in the "coming days or weeks" and he would decide what steps were needed then.

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