4 Nov 2021

Oxford criminologist 'outraged' by NZ women’s prisons

7:51 am on 4 November 2021

The use of pepper spray should be banned in women's prisons, according to a criminologist at Oxford University in England, who says she is outraged at the treatment of women in New Zealand jails.

Mihi Bassett

Mihi Bassett attempted suicide after repeatedly being gassed in her cell at Auckland Women's Prison (composite image). Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly / Vinay Ranchhod

"The treatment is dreadful. I can't think of a better word," Dr Sharon Shalev told RNZ. "What I found was extremely troubling."

Shalev, an expert on solitary confinement who has extensively researched America's 'supermax' prisons, was asked to review New Zealand's three women's prisons by the Human Rights Commission.

Her report, First Do No Harm, is the latest in a series of reviews which followed revelations by RNZ last year about the treatment of Mihi Bassett and Karma Cripps at Auckland Women's Prison.

Dr Sharon Shalev, a criminologist at Oxford University in England

Dr Sharon Shalev Photo: Supplied

Shalev found pepper spray use was higher at Auckland Women's Prison than at any other prison in New Zealand, except Christchurch Men's Prison.

Her report says pepper spray was used 23 times at Auckland Women's Prison in 2019 (although Corrections says it was actually 32 times) often for what Shalev described as minor incidents.

"I just couldn't understand why this was the chosen method of dealing with the issue," Shalev said. "I think it's telling that they used it more in Auckland Women's than they did in Auckland Men's, for example, which is a high security prison for men."

She said pepper spray was not used in women's prisons in England and Wales and should be banned here too.

RNZ reported last year that in addition to regular pepper spray, Corrections uses an American product called Cell Buster, to hose pepper spray into cells to extract inmates who refuse to move.

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Corrections uses a US pepper spray, Cell Buster. Photo: www.sabrered.com

Cell Buster, marketed under the tagline 'Making Grown Men Cry Since 1975', was used repeatedly on Bassett and also on Cripps, who has asthma.

"It really is absolutely shocking that they should use it, and for people with underlying health issues concerning their lungs, it is doubly shocking," Shalev said.

Her report comes just a week after the Prison Inspectorate released a special review into the treatment of Bassett, Cripps and another inmate who was subjected to similar conditions at Auckland Women's Prison.

RNZ reported last year that the women were gassed in their cells with pepper spray, forced to lie face down in their cells before being fed and were unlawfully detained for months in a segregation unit.

Bassett's mental health declined and she attempted to kill herself in her cell. In the minutes after the suicide attempt, she was placed in handcuffs and threatened with pepper spray. She was returned to segregation the next day.

The treatment came to light after Corrections asked police to prosecute them for setting fire to prison property.

During the court case, Manukau District Court Judge David McNaughton said the women were treated in a "degrading," "cruel" and "inhumane" manner in a "concerted effort to break their spirit".

The Prison Inspectorate report released last week described it as a "systemic failure" of oversight.

"The issues identified in this investigation do not stem from a lack of processes or regulation. Rather, the existing regulations and processes were not followed," chief inspector Janis Adair said.

Shalev has studied New Zealand prisons for four years but was still surprised at how women were treated.

"I thought it was quite shocking to be honest. I usually write quite dry reports. I try to stick to the facts. This report, as you will see, is more emotive for the simple reason that I was outraged."

She found the use of segregation was higher in women's prisons than in men's.

In 2019, women were sent to segregation 73 percent more often than men, the report says. Most were short stays but there were 101 times in 2019 where women spent 15 days or longer in segregation.

Shalev said stays of 15 days or longer in segregation met the definition of "prolonged solitary confinement", which was prohibited as a form of torture under the United Nations 'Mandela Rules' for the treatment of prisoners.

About 93 percent of segregations lasting 15 days or longer were of Māori or Pacific women.

Saunoamaali’i Dr Karanina Sumeo, Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner with the Human Rights Commission

Saunoamaali'i Dr Karanina Sumeo Photo: Supplied

Saunoamaali'i Dr Karanina Sumeo, Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner with the Human Rights Commission, said she was deeply disturbed at how women were being treated in prison.

"As a Pacific woman, as a Polynesian woman, I think that has violated all taboos - all spiritual, cultural and social taboos in our culture," she said.

"Are we treating women in prisons like they're not whole human beings? Like they're something less than human? Less than worthy of dignity? Less than worthy of care? Because that is what the findings are telling us."

Corrections is now promising substantial change and has launched a new strategy called Wāhine - E rere ana ki te pae hou or Women Rising Above a New Horizon.

The document says 75 percent of women in prison have had a mental health condition in the last 12 months, 52 percent have suffered PTSD, 44 percent have experienced drug dependence, 68 percent have been the victims of family violence and 46 percent have lifetime alcohol dependence.

It says three quarters of women inmates have been victims of family violence, rape or sexual assault.

Corrections now says it aims to be a "world-leading centre of excellence for the management and care of women".

National Commissioner Rachel Leota said changes would include finding alternatives to strip searches and redesigning Auckland Women's Prison to allow for more recreation time and fresh air.

Wiri Prison - Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility

Auckland Women's Prison Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

She promised Corrections would also pay more attention to prisoner complaints and provide "culturally responsive trauma training" for staff.

Change would also come for pregnant inmates. Corrections would now "ensure mechanical restraints will not be used for women who are 30 weeks or more pregnant, during labour, and while they are in hospital after giving birth". Corrections would also improve the prison menu for pregnant women and "enhance play areas" in the Mothers with Babies Unit.

But Leota said Corrections would continue to use pepper spray in women's prisons.

"Pepper spray continues to remain a lawful, non-lethal option for Corrections officers when they are faced with behaviour that threatens the safety and security of prisoners, staff or the prison."

Corrections said it had raised concerns with Shalev about her report, including "the use of some statistics that do not accurately reflect the environment". It also said her report was based on 2019 figures and there had been a 30 percent reduction in women inmates since then.

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