Saturday, November 27

Oxford criminologist ‘outraged’ by New Zealand women’s prisons

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

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Mihi Bassett attempted suicide after being repeatedly gassed in her cell at Auckland Women’s Prison.
Photo: RNZ Claire Eastham-Farrelly / Vinay Ranchhod

“The treatment is terrible. I can’t think of a better word,” Dr. Sharon Shalev told RNZ. “What I found was extremely disturbing.”

The Human Rights Commission asked Shalev, a solitary confinement expert who has extensively investigated America’s ‘supermax’ prisons, to review all three New Zealand women’s prisons.

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

Dr. Sharon Shalev, criminologist at the University of Oxford in England

Dr. Sharon Shalev
Photo: Supplied

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

Their report says that pepper spray was used 23 times in 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 method of choice for dealing with the problem,” Shalev said. “I think it’s telling that they used it more in Auckland Women’s than 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 that it should be banned here as well.

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

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Corrections uses an American pepper spray, Cell Buster.

Cell Buster, marketed under the slogan “Making adult men cry since 1975,” was used repeatedly in Bassett and also Cripps, who has asthma.

“It really is absolutely shocking that they should use it, and for people with underlying health problems related to their lungs, it is doubly shocking,” Shalev said.

Her report comes just a week after the Prison Inspectorate released a special review on 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 illegally detained for months in a segregation unit.

Bassett’s mental health deteriorated and he attempted suicide in his cell. In the minutes after the suicide attempt, she was handcuffed and threatened with pepper spray. It was returned to segregation the next day.

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

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 Inspection report released last week described it as a “systemic failure” of oversight.

“The problems identified in this investigation did not stem from a lack of processes or regulation. Rather, the existing regulations and processes were not followed,” said Chief Inspector Janis Adair.

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

“To be honest, I thought it was pretty shocking. I usually write pretty dry reports. I try to stick to the facts. This report, as you will see, is more emotional for the simple reason that I was outraged.”

It found that the use of segregation was higher in women’s prisons than in men’s.

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

Shalev said that stays of 15 days or more 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.

Approximately 93 percent of segregations that lasted 15 days or more were of Maori or Pacific women.

Saunoamaali'i Dr. Karanina Sumeo, Commissioner for Equal Employment Opportunities of the Human Rights Commission

By Dr. Karanina Sumeo
Photo: Supplied

Saunoamaali’i Dr. Karanina Sumeo, Commissioner for Equal Employment Opportunities for the Human Rights Commission, said she was deeply disturbed by the way women were treated in prison.

“As a Pacific woman, as a Polynesian woman, I think that has violated all the taboos, all the spiritual, cultural and social taboos of our culture,” she said.

“Are we treating women in prisons as if they are not full human beings? As if they are less than human? Less than worthy of dignity? Less than worthy of attention? Because that’s what the findings tell us. “.

Corrections now promises a 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 that 75 percent of women in prison have had a mental health condition in the past 12 months, 52 percent have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, 44 percent have experienced drug dependence, 68 percent have been the victim of family violence and 46 percent have lifelong alcohol dependence. .

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

Corrections now says it aims to be a “leading global center of excellence for the management and care of women.”

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

Wiri Prison - Auckland Region Women's Prison

Auckland Women’s Prison
Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

He promised Corrections would also pay more attention to inmate complaints and provide “culturally sensitive trauma training” for staff.

The change would also come for pregnant inmates. The fixes now “would guarantee that no mechanical restraints will be used for women who are pregnant for 30 weeks or more, during labor and while in the hospital after giving birth.” The corrections would also improve the prison menu for pregnant women and “improve the play areas” in the Mothers with Babies Unit.

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

“Pepper spray remains a legal and non-lethal option for correctional officers when faced with behavior that threatens the safety of inmates, staff or the prison.”

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

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