Disclaimer: This story is about violence, rape, depression, and suicide.
Auckland Women’s Prison has treated inmates in a “degrading”, “cruel” and “inhumane” manner in a “concerted effort to break their spirits,” according to a scathing ruling from a district court judge.
The correctional system has repeatedly broken its own rules and regulations in the treatment of Mihi Bassett and Karma Cripps, who were gassed in their cells and forced to perform a humiliating ritual to be fed, the judge of the District Court said. Manukau, David McNaughton.
Her decision also confirms that women had to remove their underwear in front of male guards in order to get clean pairs and were sometimes denied toiletries and sanitary products..
Bassett, diagnosed with PTSD after being raped by a gang member at 17, attempted suicide in prison and the judge said her deteriorating mental health “would have been obvious to any interested observer.”
After Bassett was transferred to the Prisons Intensive Support Unit, his partner, Cripps, was placed in the cell where Bassett had attempted to kill himself – even though there were other cells available – an action that the judge called it cruel.
The judge’s findings contrast sharply with the assurances given by Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis when RNZ shared the story of Cripps and Bassett’s treatment last year.
Davis then said his department assured him the treatment of women was legal. “Regarding the allegations that women should have undressed in front of male staff, I have been assured that this practice is not in place.”
But the judge said Bassett and Cripps’ evidence was “powerful and compelling” and entirely consistent. “I have no reason to doubt their evidence,” he said.
Details of their treatment came to light after Bassett and other inmates torched property at Auckland Women’s Prison in 2019 and they were brought to justice on arson charges.
But the judge became concerned when he heard about the treatment of the women.
After lighting the fire to protest the removal of the trash bags – the prison removed them to prevent women from using them to cover their faces when sprayed with pepper in their cells – Bassett was sent to the wing D, an isolation unit known as a pound.
But Justice McNaughton found the Correctional Service had broken its own rules by impounding Bassett and kept her there without proper authorization.
Bassett, now 27, spent four months in the pound in conditions the judge called “particularly harsh, including the inability to interact with other inmates or correctional staff.”
Corrections must follow a process when sending inmates to the impound, but they did not and the judge ruled that “the legal basis for her isolation remains uncertain on the basis of the evidence.”
A prison can only keep an inmate in the pound for two weeks unless the director general of corrections extends the order. The detention must then be reviewed every month and the order expires after three months, unless a justice of the peace extends it.
“Ms. Bassett was denied the opportunity to attend a disciplinary hearing before a visiting judge,” Justice McNaughton concluded.
“We cannot therefore say that his continued incarceration in wing D was the result of a legal sentence of solitary confinement which, in any event, could only have been for a maximum period of 15 days. . “
The judge found Corrections had acted illegally in keeping Bassett in the pound for four months. “There is no evidence that a segregation order was in effect for Ms Bassett. If such an order was in place, it clearly violated the law.”
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 their complaints being ignored prompted the women to trigger their cell sprinklers in protest.
The prison would respond by using Cell Buster pepper spray to force them out of their cells – which had flooded and became a security risk.
The Cell Buster, which is sprayed under the cell door, has been used on Bassett four times, but in doing so, Corrections broke his own rules, which limit him to using no more force than is reasonably necessary. .
“Each time pepper spray was used against Ms. Bassett, she was alone in her cell without weapons and was confronted by six officers wearing full helmets and face shields,” the judge said.
The judge admitted, as Bassett did in court, that she had had the opportunity to leave the cell peacefully and that she had a history of violence against staff.
“Nonetheless, by any assessment, the use of force in these incidents was excessive and some distance beyond what was necessary to extract him from his cell.”
The use of the Cell Buster product – manufactured by the American company Saber, and marketed with the slogan “ 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 criticized corrections for forcing women to lie on the floor before receiving their food.
Auckland Women’s Prison Deputy Warden Alison Fowlie told the court Corrections used the tactic because the women put their hands through the feed hatch and posed a risk to the security of the guards .
But the judge was not convinced.
“This precondition for the provision of food was again excessive, degrading and fundamentally inhuman.”
He also criticized Corrections for forcing women to swap clothes, including underwear, one for one – a strategy used by the prison to ensure women did not try to store clothes.
“An article-by-article exchange observed by prison officers, men and women, was an unnecessary invasion of privacy and an affront to dignity,” said the judge.
“It is difficult to see all of these examples of mistreatment of prisoners as anything other than a concerted effort to break their spirits and overcome their resistance.”
It was in January 2020, when Bassett was about three months before her stint in the pound, that she tried to kill herself in her cell.
She was resuscitated and returned to the pound the next day.
The judge said that during his time in the pound, Bassett’s mental well-being had been “seriously affected” and the evidence of his declining mental health was “heartbreaking”.
Bassett and his partner Cripps had both spoken to prison staff about his suicidal thoughts and the judge was very critical of the corrections inaction.
“The continued deterioration of Ms. Bassett’s sanity would have been evident to any interested observer.”
Cripps, who was in a nearby cell, called for help only to realize that his partner was trying to kill himself.
“Ms Cripp’s testimony that she witnessed Ms Bassett’s suicide attempt and raised the alarm gave a very clear picture of the trauma this must have been for her. To follow this event immediately by relocating her to the very cell where she had witnessed this event was nothing short of cruel. “
Bassett and Cripps have repeatedly filed complaints about their treatment, but Corrections have not followed their own rules for responding to them.
“As several of Ms Bassett’s complaints were clearly not received or dealt with, she was again deprived of the protection that should have been afforded her by the complaints regime prescribed by the regulations,” said the judge. “Critically, this has left her largely without recourse for her mistreatment.”
Bassett is serving a 10-year sentence on serious assault and kidnapping charges related to a violent home invasion in 2014.
Bassett’s girlfriend at the time (not Cripps) had a nephew who she said was sexually abused. Bassett and his friends “decided to make a hit on a pedophile,” according to court records at the time.
The group took a shotgun, hammers and a knife from the man’s home and attacked him and his family, inflicting fractures, lacerations and a stab wound.
Bassett is not due out of jail until 2026 and a corrections lawyer said in court she had been violent or threatened with violence against prison staff 65 times and had 42 disciplinary hearings.
Regardless of the crimes committed by detainees, the New Zealand Bill of Rights states that they should not be subjected to torture or cruel treatment and should be treated with dignity and humanity.
Corrections did not dispute the evidence Bassett or Cripps gave about their harsh treatment in prison – something Justice McNaughton strongly criticized.
“The fact that Corrections did not respond to these allegations is troubling. None of the C and D Wings officers who were present at the time were called as witnesses.”
Next month Judge McNaughton will determine whether Bassett should have jail time added to her arson sentence or whether the harsh conditions she faced were punishment enough.
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