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Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis. (Photo credit FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP/Getty Images)
Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis. (Photo credit FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP/Getty Images)

PoliticsMarch 22, 2021

Review, apologise, overhaul: Kelvin Davis dramatically changes tune on women’s prison abuses

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis. (Photo credit FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP/Getty Images)
Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis. (Photo credit FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP/Getty Images)

In response to findings of ‘degrading’ treatment of women prisoners, the Corrections minister today diagnosed a ‘systemic breakdown’. Justin Giovannetti reports.

Read Kelvin Davis’s letter in full below.

An unacceptable failure of oversight and leadership at New Zealand women’s prisons reveals the need for review and overhaul, Corrections minister Kelvin Davis said today in a blistering letter to the department’s chief executive.

A month ago, Davis had shown little concern after a District Court judge ruled that female prisoners had been subject to “inhumane” treatment. The minister said at the time that he’d been given assurances that prison staff were acting correctly.

Today, Davis said those assurances were wrong. He commissioned an investigation into the situation and the report from chief inspector Janis Adair did not make for easy reading. It was now clear that Corrections should apologise, and he would be too, said Davis.

“It’s fair to say that I’m not happy with what I read,” said Davis, speaking with reporters in the foyer of parliament.

Along with an apology to three inmates who raised concerns about their treatment, which included being gassed in their cells, strip searches and forced feeding, Davis ordered the department to change its procedures and training for staff. There also needed to be deeper cultural and systemic change in the system, to meet the government’s Hōkai Rangi strategy to humanise prisons.

“There was a systemic breakdown. The management of the women was unacceptable and inappropriate. They were let down,” he said of the women. The minister has asked the department to apologise to them.

Amnesty International executive director Meg de Ronde said she was pleased “with a pretty stunning 180” change from Davis.

“We don’t want to lose sight that this is systemic across all prisons, not just Auckland Women’s,” said de Ronde, who added that she hopes his demands to corrections will bring about lasting change. “We can’t let this type of brutality happen again and we need transparency.”

Some of the conditions surfaced because of Mihi Bassett. While Manukau District Court judge David McNaughton was considering whether her sentence should be extended because of arson in prison, her mistreatment came to light. Corrections was given opportunities to defend itself in court and failed to do so.

While sentencing Bassett today, McNaughton took a moment to reflect on the minister’s apology for her treatment in prison.

“You are entitled to your minimum rights and entitlements and what happened to you and the other women was not justice, it was the opposite of justice. And I am grateful and relived that now, finally, the Corrections Department is going to acknowledge that,” he said.

Mihi Bassett at the Manukau District Court in February. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Bassett had attempted suicide in her cell last year. She was threatened by pepper spray and put in a headlock moments after her attempt. She was held in solitary detention, her clothes were cut off, she was denied access to any programmes to better herself.

Documents revealed in court sketched the life of a woman who, while certainly aggressive at times, suffered both inside and outside prison. The details are horrific and include rape and violence.

She was sentenced to a decade in prison for a home invasion where she attacked a man she thought was sexually abusing a child.

In his sentencing today, the judge ruled that she’d suffered enough and didn’t add any additional time.

“There was a dignity and strength of character coming through from all of you,” the judge said of Bassett and other women who have come forward. “You are resilient, you are a survivor, so despite everything that’s happened to you in prison and despite everything that’s happened to you in your life before that, and despite the crimes you have committed, underneath all of that there is a good person. You deserve a better life than this.”

While systems clearly failed at Auckland women’s prison, Davis said the entire department will now need to be improved to ensure it never happens again.

In his letter to Corrections chief executive Jeremy Lightfoot, he cited a recent conversation with an expert who relayed that Corrections officers often feel as though their humanity tells them to act one way, but their training as corrections officers tell them to act another. Corrections now needs to ensure that the two are the same, Davis concluded. 

Speaking with reporters today, there were echoes of Davis in another of his difficult portfolios as children’s minister. In that job he’s faced an entrenched culture at Oranga Tamariki that requires change and slowly began pushing through a programme meant to make the agency more responsive. He faces something similar with the prison system.

The minister faces a hard task, agreed de Ronde. “I genuinely believe that Davis wants to humanise prisons, but it might be clearer to him now that that can’t be achieved unless the department shares those ideals. I don’t have a grand hope we can solve that in the next two years, giving how deep the issues go.”

‘I want and expect better’: The minister’s letter in full

Hon Kelvin Davis
MP for Te Tai Tokerau Minister for Māori Crown Relations: Te Arawhiti Minister for Children Minister of Corrections Associate Minister of Education (Māori Education) 

Jeremy Lightfoot
Chief Executive of the Department of Corrections

22 March 2021 

Tēna koe Jeremy, 

As you are aware, following the findings made by District Court Judge David McNaughton regarding the treatment of several female prisoners in Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility (ARWCF), I sought further information from Corrections, received advice from the Attorney General and now have reviewed Chief Inspector Janis Adair’s preliminary investigation findings and recommendations. 

Before I outline my views and expected actions and responses, I want to note a few points: 

  • I understand Corrections Officers are asked to deal with some of New Zealand’s most difficult people, many with serious behavioural issues. I understand the risk to their personal safety on a day to day basis and that is why I have directed Corrections to do further work on reducing the number of assaults on Corrections Officers and believe that the actions and responses included in this letter will go some way in helping to diffuse tensions. 
  • Secondly, during a meeting with Professor Tracey Mcintosh, she said something that has stuck with me. She said that sometimes Corrections Officers say “the human in me says I should do this, but the Corrections Officer in me tells me not to”. The purpose of Hokai Rangi is to humanise and heal – it is my expectation that the ‘human’ and the ‘Corrections Officer’ are one and the same. 
  • Finally, the failings highlighted in the Chief Inspector’s report are unacceptable. The lack of oversight and leadership is unacceptable. These failings had a major impact on prisoners and that is also unacceptable. 

I want and expect better from Corrections. 

Based on advice and evidence I have received on incidents that took place at ARWCF between 2019 and 2020, as the Minister of Corrections, I expect the following responses to be actioned immediately. 

Chief Inspector’s preliminary investigation findings and recommendations 

  • That Corrections accepts the recommendations provided by Chief Inspector Janis Adair in her interim report. 

Processes, protocols, reporting 

I expect Corrections staff to follow the rules and regulations that govern their operations – but I acknowledge that I must first be assured that these are fit for purpose in 2021. 

  • I want Corrections to review the parts of the Prison Operations Manual and the relevant Corrections Regulations 2005 that relate to the areas of concern mentioned by the Chief Inspector. I want to be assured that both the Prison Operations Manual and Regulations are in line with the new strategy, Hokai Rangi, and can easily be implemented in today’s modern prison environment. 
  • I want Corrections to ensure that training is provided to frontline custodial staff with a focus on processes around the use of force, segregation, the appropriate use of cells and searches as well as the management of difficult situations. 

Urgent review and overhaul of maximum security classification for Women, the development of management plans for Women and a review of all Women’s prisons 

It is unacceptable that management plans for women are based on the same management plans used for maximum security male prisoners. 

  • I want all future management plans for women to be written based on their needs and best interests. 
  • I expect Corrections to seek external advice from stakeholders when undertaking this urgent work. 

The corrections system and network was built to suit the needs of male prisoners. I believe we need to review the system and network to ensure we operate our women’s prisons based on the needs of female prisoners. 

I want Corrections to undertake a review and provide me with recommendations on how we can work to address this fundamental issue. 

The complaints system 

For many years I have held serious concerns about the complaints process used in the Corrections network. I acknowledge that some changes have occurred over the last three years, but this does not go far enough. 

Alongside the roll out of the Kiosk system I expect Corrections to do the following: 

  • Engage an external team to review the complaints process. I expect you to invite Chief Inspector, Janis Adair to lead this team and for the team to include voices from prison advocates, prisoners, corrections officers and system experts. 
  • A review of the complaints system was completed by KPMG in 2018/19 – this should form the basis of the group’s work. 
  • While this review is taking place, I have asked the Chief Inspector to allocate more staff to each of the prisons to oversee the complaints process at each site. 

Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility (ARWCF) I remain particularly concerned about the practices, processes and culture at ARWCF. 

  • I want a detailed plan provided to me that shows how Corrections will implement the changes and recommendations made by the Office of the Inspectorates inspection at ARWCF in June 2020. 
  • I have also asked the Chief Inspector to consider allocating a permanent staffer from her Office to oversee the implementation of this plan and the changes to systemic issues. She has indicated that she will accept my invitation and will oversee ARWCF for 12 months. 

Final considerations 

The Chief Inspector’s report notes that she found no evidence of deliberate cruelty from staff or efforts to break the spirits of the women. I accept the Chief Inspector’s findings that this was no Corrections Officers intent, but can also understand why Judge McNaugton reached the views he did on the evidence before him 

I also want to mention that the June 2020 inspection report for ARWCF from the Office of the Inspectorate acknowledges “the recent appointment of a Prison Director and key positions in his management team. I am confident that the strong leadership will focus efforts to appropriately address the challenges of this site and ensure it is better equipped and supported to deliver a high quality service”. 

Corrections should apologise to the affected female prisoners. As the Minister, I will also apologise for any 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. 

I also want to signal that following the Chief Inspector’s final report I will advise of any additional expectations I may have. 

The situation we face is serious, and I expect Corrections and, in particular its leadership, to act swiftly and urgently to implement the changes recommended. 

Hon Kelvin Davis 

Minister of Corrections

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