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Auckland Women's Prison's treatment of inmates 'cruel' and 'inhumane' - judge

Auckland Women's Prison treated inmates in a "degrading", "cruel" and "inhumane" manner in a "concerted effort to break their spirit", according to a stinging ruling from a district court judge.

A corridor at Auckland Women's Prison. Source: rnz.co.nz

By Guyon Espiner for rnz.co.nz

Corrections broke its own rules and regulations multiple times in its treatment of Mihi Bassett and Karma Cripps, who were gassed in their cells and forced to perform a humiliating ritual to be fed, Manukau District Court Judge David McNaughton says.

His ruling also confirms 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.

Bassett, diagnosed with PTSD after being raped by a gang member at 17, attempted suicide in the prison and the judge said her deteriorating mental health "would have been obvious to any interested observer".

After Bassett was moved to the prisons' Intensive Support Unit, her partner, Cripps, was put in the cell Bassett had attempted suicide in - even though there were other cells available - an action the judge described as cruel.

The judge's findings stand in stark contrast to assurances Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis gave when RNZ broke the story of Cripps and Bassett's treatment last year.

Davis said then that his department had assured him the treatment of the women was lawful. "Regarding claims that women were made to undress in front of male staff, I have received assurance that this practice is not in place".

But the judge said Bassett and Cripps's evidence was "powerful and compelling" and entirely consistent.

"I have no reason to doubt their evidence," he said.

Details of their treatment were revealed after Bassett and other inmates set fire to property at Auckland Women's Prison in 2019 and they were taken to court on arson charges.

But the judge became concerned when hearing about the women's treatment.

After lighting the fire in protest at having bin-liners removed - the prison removed them to stop women using them to cover their faces when pepper sprayed in their cells - Bassett was sent to D wing, a segregation unit known as the pound.

But Justice McNaughton found Corrections broke its own rules in sending Bassett to the pound and kept her there without proper authorisation.

Bassett, now 27, spent four months in the pound in conditions the judge described as "particularly harsh, including an inability to interact with other prisoners or Corrections staff".

Corrections must follow a process when sending inmates to the pound, but failed to do so and the judge ruled "the legal basis for her segregation remains unclear on the evidence".

A prison can only keep an inmate in the pound for two weeks unless the chief executive of Corrections extends the order. The detention then has to be reviewed monthly and the order expires after three months unless a visiting justice extends it.

Mihi Bassett at the Manukau District Court. Source: rnz.co.nz

"Ms Bassett was denied the opportunity to attend any disciplinary hearing before a Visiting Justice," Judge McNaughton found.

"Her continued confinement in D Wing cannot therefore be said to have been as a result of a lawful penalty of cell confinement which in any event could only have been for a maximum duration of 15 days."

The judge found Corrections acted unlawfully by holding Bassett in the pound for four months.

"There is no evidence that a segregation order was in force in respect of Ms Bassett. If such an order was in force it was clearly in breach of the Act."

Bassett was aware of her rights "but even when she sought to exercise them she was denied them", the judge said.

The ruling shows that the harsh conditions combined with having their complaints ignored prompted the women to set off their cell sprinklers in protest.

The prison would respond by using the Cell Buster pepper spray to force them out of their cells - which had flooded and become a safety risk.

The Cell Buster, which is sprayed under the cell door, was used on Bassett four times but in doing so Corrections broke its own regulations, which restrict it to using no more force than is reasonably necessary.

"On each occasion that pepper spray was used against Ms Bassett she was alone in her cell unarmed and was faced by six officers in full body armour helmets and face shields," the judge said.

The judge acknowledged, as Bassett did in court, that she had the opportunity to vacate the cell peacefully and that she had a history of violence toward staff.

"Nonetheless on any assessment the use of force in these incidents was excessive and some distance beyond what was necessary to extract her from her cell."

The use of the Cell Buster product - made by American company Sabre, and marketed with the tagline 'Making Grown Men Cry Since 1975' - is now the subject of a separate court case taken by Cripps, seeking to ban its use in New Zealand prisons.

The judge also slammed Corrections for making the women lie on the floor before receiving their food.

Auckland Women's Prison deputy prison director Alison Fowlie said in court that Corrections used the tactic because the women put their hands through the feeding hatch and posed a safety risk to guards.

But the judge was not convinced.

"This precondition to the provision of food was again excessive, degrading and fundamentally inhumane."

He also blasted Corrections for forcing the women to exchange clothing, including underwear, one for one - a strategy used by the prison to ensure the women did not attempt to hoard clothes.

"An item by item exchange observed by both male and female prison officers was an unnecessary invasion of privacy and an affront to dignity," the judge said.

"It is difficult to see all of these examples of the ill treatment of prisoners as anything other than a concerted effort to break their spirit and defeat their resistance."

It was in January 2020 when Bassett was about three months into her stint in the pound that she attempted suicide in her cell.

She was resuscitated and sent back to the pound the next day.

The judge said that during her stay in the pound Bassett's mental wellbeing was "severely impacted" and the evidence of her declining state of mental health was "harrowing".

Bassett and her partner Cripps had both told prison staff about her suicidal thoughts and the judge was highly critical of Corrections' failure to act.

"The steady deterioration of Ms Bassett's mental health would have been obvious to any interested observer."

Cripps, who was in a neighbouring cell, called for help on realising her partner was attempting to kill herself.

"Ms Cripps evidence of witnessing Ms Bassett's suicide attempt and raising the alarm gave a very clear picture of how traumatic this must have been for her.

"To immediately follow that event by relocating her to the very cell she had witnessed this event was nothing short of cruel."

Bassett and Cripps repeatedly lodged complaints about their treatment but Corrections failed to follow its own rules in responding to them.

"As several of Ms Bassett's complaints were clearly not receipted or actioned she was again deprived of the protection that should have been conferred upon her by the complaints regime prescribed by the regulations," the judge said.

"Critically, this left her largely without recourse in respect of her mistreatment."

Bassett is serving 10 years on serious assault and kidnapping charges relating to a violent home invasion in 2014.

Bassett's girlfriend at the time (not Cripps) had a nephew who she believed was being sexually abused. Bassett and her friends "decided to do a hit on a pedophile", according to court records from the time.

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Auckland Women’s Prison inmate Karma Cripps was allegedly gassed with pepper spray in her cell. Source: 1 NEWS

The group took a shotgun, hammers and a knife to the man's home and attacked him and his family, inflicting broken bones, lacerations and a stab wound.

Bassett is not due out of prison until 2026 and a lawyer acting for Corrections said in court she had been violent or threatened violence to prison staff 65 times and had 42 disciplinary hearings.

Regardless of the crimes inmates have committed, the New Zealand Bill of Rights says they must not be subjected to torture or cruel treatment and should be treated with dignity and humanity.

Corrections did not contest the evidence Bassett or Cripps gave about their harsh treatment in prison - something Justice McNaughton was highly critical of.

"The failure of the Corrections department to respond to these allegations is troubling. None of the officers from C and D Wings who were present at the time were called as witnesses."

Next month, Judge McNaughton will determine whether Bassett should have any prison time added to her sentence for the arson or if the harsh conditions she faced has been punishment enough.