'It shouldn't get to this crisis point' — Amnesty NZ says broader transparency needed after blistering prison report

Anna Whyte
Source: 1News

It should not have gotten to "this crisis point, with women being dehumanised, for something to be done", Amnesty International Aotearoa said today of the Government's order for Corrections to urgently overhaul its treatment of women in prison. 

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis said today he would apologise for the harm caused "given the system I am responsible for failed to treat them in line with what is right, what is good and what is promised in Hōkai Rangi" — Corrections' new strategic direction. 

Executive director of Amnesty International Aotearoa Meg de Ronde welcomed the apology and acknowledgment that the harm should not have happened to the women.

"It is a welcome 180 from the minister," de Ronde said.

"It certainly highlights the need for broader transparency in prisons. It shouldn’t get to this crisis point with women being dehumanised for something to be done."

She said it should not take multiple reports, two court cases and 5300 New Zealanders signing a petition "to get this far".

De Ronde said there needed to be systems and processes in place to "ensure this never happens again".

It came after the interim report was released by Corrections' team of independent inspectors into Auckland Women's Correctional Facility, triggered after allegations including unreasonable use of pepper spray and confinement cells, and from criticism from Judge David McNaughton during the court case of one of the women in the prison. 

The report by Chief Inspector Janis Adair found "significant failures" to be in line with Corrections' rules - including minimum prisoner entitlements were not being provided, use of force became "frequently necessary", prisoner complaints were often not elevated despite the seriousness of the issue and misconduct charges were not routinely filed. 

"Ultimately the wāhine were in a position where there were no more privileges or entitlements to remove, leading to increasingly difficult behaviour, and increasingly coercive actions to control behaviour," the report stated. "I regard the development of this situation as a systemic failure of oversight."

Department of Corrections' Lynette Cave wanted to "publicly reiterate the apology we have made to these women" involved in the report.

"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.

"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."

Green Party's Golriz Ghahraman said she is "grateful these revelations have been made public through the findings of the independent Corrections Inspectorate, the media and the court case of Mihi Bassett".

"But we can't afford to wait for investigations or court cases to learn about systemic abuses and inhumane treatment in our prisons."

Last month, a  judge ruled some of the treatment of prisoners  at Auckland Women's Prison was "excessive, degrading and fundamentally inhumane", with some inmates made to lie on the floor before getting food. In addition, making inmates show the exchange of each piece of clothing to officers was "an unnecessary invasion of privacy and an affront to dignity".

It came after an RNZ investigation in November in which an asthmatic woman was reportedly pepper sprayed and was forced to show her used sanitary products to male guards.

The Corrections Minister was waiting on the Office of the Inspectorate report before deciding whether an investigation was needed into allegations at Auckland Women's prison, when asked earlier this month. 

"I'm not happy with what I've read," Davis said today. 

Davis has directed Corrections to make a number of immediate changes — including a plan on how it would address systemic issues at Auckland Women's Correctional Facility.

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

He said some frontline staff were "let down" by a system higher up.

"I believe the management of the women was unacceptable, it was inappropriate and that they were let down. Their needs were not being met."

Earlier this year, another report released by the Office of the Inspectorate on the same prison found issues accessing necessary health services, a shortage of underwear, in particular bras, some prisoners not getting allocated outside time and women having to request a limited amount of sanitary items. 

The report also found that needs of some prisoners with disabilities were not always met and access to health services were "considerably affected by health and custodial staff shortages". 

"Some said they felt embarrassed when they needed to ask for further supplies. In some units, staff recorded the items provided to individual women," the report stated. 

There was a shortage of bras and the investigators spoke to one woman who had not received any toiletries or a change of clothes since she was arrested two days earlier. 

"Many wāhine told us they were issued with only one set of underwear and relied on family and friends to supply more, which can take time to arrive. Some said other wāhine who were being released may pass clothing and underwear on to others," the report read.

Women also could not consistently launder and dry their clothes, bedding and towels. It also found some high security prisoners were not receiving their minimum entitlement of at least one hour in the open air each day and had few opportunities for work or training. 

Women had a three-month wait for non-urgent dental appointments and women were not always prioritised for health appointments according to need. 

Chief Inspector Janis Adair said last month many of the concerns from the report had been addressed and others were being progressed.