22 Mar 2021

Corrections Minister orders urgent overhaul, review of women's prisons

5:58 pm on 22 March 2021

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis has told the department to overhaul its processes and management of women in prison.

Davis has also apologised to the three inmates who raised concerns about the treatment of prisoners at Auckland Women's Prison.

He has told media this afternoon he "is not happy" with what he has read from the chief inspector's report.

"I directed Corrections to make a number of changes immediately. First of all, Corrections needs to accept the recommendations of the Chief Inspector, there needs to be a detailed plan outlining how Corrections will address systemic issues raised at Auckland Women's Correctional Facility."

"It's inappropriate for women in prison to be treated as if their needs were the same as male prisoners."

He says the apology is just one step into "setting the situation right".

"I believe the management of the women was just unacceptable, it was inappropriate, and they were let down. Their needs weren't being met."

"I sought assurances that the management of these women was appropriate but given the interim report from the Chief Inspector, I believe the points I outlined weren't up to scratch, weren't up to the standard and expectation that I have."

The Department of Corrections has also apologised to the women and is likely to offer them a formal apology and financial settlement in future.

The department has come under scrutiny after allegations of "cruel and inhumane" treatment of inmates at the prison.

The claims were aired during an arson trial for one of the women, Mihi Bassett, who was sentenced today.

At sentencing today, the Judge ruled Bassett had suffered enough and would not receive extra time on her sentence for arson at the prison in 2019.

As a result of the case, Davis sought advice from the Chief Inspector who found no evidence of deliberate cruelty from staff but staff overall lacked proper oversight and guidance.

He also sought further information from Corrections, received advice from the Attorney-General about his concerns and has now reviewed the Chief Inspector's preliminary findings.

"The failings highlighted in the Chief Inspector's report are unacceptable. The lack of oversight and leadership has had a major impact on prisoners," Davis said.

Davis has now asked the Department of Corrections to conduct an urgent overhaul of the maximum security classification for women, the development of management plans for women and a review of all women's prisons.

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In a letter to the Department's chief executive Jeremy Lightfoot, Davis said he wanted and expected better.

The Minister wants additional training for frontline custodial staff, an external team bought in to review the complaints process and for Corrections to review parts of the Prison Operations Manual.

Davis also expects the department to release a detailed plan outlining how it will address systemic issues raised about Auckland Women's Prison with a staff member from the Chief Inspector's Office allocated to oversee implementation for 12 months.

"I expect Corrections and, in particular, its leadership to act urgently to make these changes," Davis said.

Davis has also apologised to the women involved "for the harm caused, given the system I am responsible for failed to treat them in line with what is right, what is good."

Kelvin Davis.

Kelvin Davis. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

He said it was appropriate the Department of Corrections do the same.

In a statement, Corrections said it had met with three women to acknowledge and apologise for the way they were managed at Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility (ARWCF) between February 2019 and February 2020.

Speaking to media this afternoon, Davis said it was a systemic breakdown and a criticism of the Corrections system, not Corrections officers.

"This isn't a criticism of Corrections officers, it is a criticism of the system that let Corrections officers down."

"I believe the frontline staff have had to deal with a situation on a daily basis that in fact they were let down by the system higher up. There needed to be a time where someone said 'look, what we're doing isn't working and we need to look at the situation and change our processes and practices'.

"The system has basically been designed around managing men, and I just don't think in this day and age - and it's probably never been appropriate - that women and their needs are being treated as if they were men."

He says he expects that officers continue to use their body cameras to be able to review footage and ensure appropriate actions were taken.

He has also sought more information from the Chief Inspector to be assured that staff were acting lawfully.

"I think some of the practices that have come out that the judge described speak for themselves. I think we need to have a good look at the way these women have been treated and other women and make sure we don't keep making the same mistakes."

He says women prisoners need to be engaged in the overhaul process to ensure they can articulate what their needs are, and how those needs can be met.

He says the management of the prison has completely changed since April last year, which he hopes will implement the changes made.

"The prison that it was in February of 2020 isn't the prison that it is now, because of the changes that they've made."

'Hōkai Rangi is the Māori strategy, is the overarching strategy'

Speaking on Hōkai Rangi, which aims to reduce the Māori prison population over the next 15 years, he says changes from that strategy cannot be expected to be seen immediately.

"You're not going to see the benefits of five years in just over 18 months. We need to wait until the five years is up to see the changes.

"There is still a lot of work to be done but it's on the right track. Previous to this government there was no Māori strategy and often we see Māori strategies are little strategies in the corner while an overarching strategy occurs.

"Hōkai Rangi is the Māori strategy, is the overarching strategy for Corrections. It is about overall systemic change in Corrections."

He says many positives are coming out of it, and Corrections is also looking to implement a Māori pathway in Christchurch Women's Prison.

"We've achieved a 20 percent reduction in just three and a half years, we haven't changed any settings, we haven't changed any laws, we've just looked for bottlenecks in the system. Double bunking numbers have been reduced by 38 percent.

"Our Māori numbers have been reduced by 16 percent, that's over 1800 fewer Māori in prisons now than when we came into government."

Comparing the 20 percent overall reduction and 16 percent reduction in Māori inmates, he says it's clear to see that at this stage more non-Māori than Māori were getting the benefit.

"But we've identified that and we can work on it, that's why we have Māori pathways, that's why we have Hōkai Rangi."

He has total faith in the chief executive of Corrections, he says.

"He is as upset about this as I am."

Ongoing reparations

Regional Commissioner Lynette Cave said the meeting was the first opportunity to apologise for the systemic failures that led to these women being managed in line with an increasingly restrictive regime in response to their escalating challenging behaviours.

"I would like to publicly reiterate the apology we have made to these women. Despite the challenges of working with people who sometimes exhibit very difficult behaviour, we must always uphold the highest standards. I am deeply sorry that for these three women, we didn't."

During the meetings Corrections agreed with each of the women to continue to meet with them and work through options for us to make amends, Cave said.

"This will be guided by what they want to see happen in response, and is likely to include a formal apology, access to counselling, financial settlement and participation in designing our policies and practices for managing women with challenging and violent behaviour in future. Our intent is for this process to be mana-enhancing for the women, and restorative."

"While we can't undo how our actions affected these women at the time, or the distress they may have suffered, we have made a number of changes at the prison to prevent this from ever happening again, and it's important that we now try to put things right for them."

Corrections met with each of the women on Friday 19 March 2021 after the Chief Inspector provided the department with the preliminary findings of its investigation into the women's treatment over a period of 13 months in 2019 and early 2020.

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