An Auckland judge has laid down a thundering assessment of Corrections’ treatment of a prisoner at Auckland Region Women’s Prison. Mihi Bassett is yet to be sentenced for arson charges, but Judge McNaughton has recognised that in the prison she was subjected to degrading and inhumane treatment, as well as excessive use of force. This judgement has confirmed some of Amnesty International’s most grave concerns about what’s happening in our prison system;
Cell buster extractions where pepper spray is hosed into a cell – the Judge found the use of force was excessive, and “some distance beyond what was reasonably necessary to extract her from her cell”.
Compelling prisoners to lie down on the floor in order to receive meals was found to be excessive, degrading and fundamentally inhumane.
Male and female officers observing the exchange of clothing including underwear, exchanged for clean items one by one – the Judge said it was “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”.
Amnesty International’s Executive Director Meg de Ronde says Correction’s ignorance of their own domestic law here shows gross incompetence.
“As if the degrading treatment the judge pointed out wasn’t enough, the long term cell confinement and segregation Mihi endured was unlawful and looks like prolonged solitary confinement. Correction’s ignorance of their own laws during court proceedings shows gross incompetence. And there is a human cost to this: to be in a cell for months on end with no meaningful human contact is deeply damaging. It’s no wonder people act out.”
De Ronde says there’s a serious question about whether this could amount to torture.
“Judge McNaughton noted the lengthy segregation and confinement was ‘particularly harsh’. For us in the human rights space, this raises further questions of whether it was prolonged solitary confinement and whether it was used as punishment. Such use is strictly prohibited under international law as it could amount to psychological torture.”
She adds Mihi was denied help, even when she reached out and used all the correct processes available to her.
“Everyone expects people – even those in prison – to be treated with dignity: prison is the punishment. It is their liberty that has been taken away, not their humanity. When Mihi reached out she was denied the safeguards the Corrections Act provides.”
“When we put all this together, when we consider the inadequate clothing and sanitary items, the inhumane food practices… you can’t help but feel like they were trying to break her. And what’s more disheartening is that we are seeing serious human rights issues across the prison system. This kind of punitive culture has no place in Aotearoa. People must be treated with care. We renew our calls once again to the Minister of Corrections, Hon Kelvin Davis, for an end to such practices so that our prisons can become more respectful places for both those living and working there.”