Mihi Bassett told the court that after months in the pound, she felt like dying (Radio NZ, Claire Eastham-Farrelly)
Mihi Bassett told the court that after months in the pound, she felt like dying (Radio NZ, Claire Eastham-Farrelly)

The BulletinNovember 25, 2020

The Bulletin: Pepper spray, solitary confinement incidents show prison culture

Mihi Bassett told the court that after months in the pound, she felt like dying (Radio NZ, Claire Eastham-Farrelly)
Mihi Bassett told the court that after months in the pound, she felt like dying (Radio NZ, Claire Eastham-Farrelly)

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Shocking incidents show prison culture, exchange of letters over monetary policy more exciting than it sounds, and Auckland locations close over Covid warning.

A shocking story from Auckland Women’s Prison that raises questions about whether prisoners are being treated humanely. Radio NZ’s Guyon Espiner reports that prisoners have spoken out about being forced to beg for food and sanitary products, spending far longer than they should have in solitary confinement, and being subjected to the practice of ‘bombing’ – the use of canisters of pepper spray to extract people from their confined cells. Above all, the story spoke to a culture of cruelty and punitiveness, at odds with measures taken by corrections minister Kelvin Davis to change that culture.

Davis said yesterday morning that he’d be asking officials for a briefing, in an interview on Radio NZ largely focused on Oranga Tamariki. He said he was unable to comment much more, because aspects of the matter are currently before the courts. On One News, Davis said he wasn’t aware of the practice of ‘bombing’, and said that he would expect all prisoners to be treated in line with the Corrections Act. PM Jacinda Ardern said that she found the report “disturbing”. Later in the afternoon, Davis put out a statement saying that Corrections had informed him that all force used was legal and proportional, with the department saying the use of pepper spray canisters was only a last resort.

However, a human rights lawyer picked up on the harsh use of solitary confinement, and said it may breach international law against torture. Douglas Ewen told Radio NZ that rules that set out how solitary can be used were not followed, and in court, the second in command at the prison “admitted she did not even know existed”. Ewen suggested that New Zealand might have a responsibility to report the incident to international monitoring organisations.

Speaking about the case, Justspeak director Tania Sawicki-Mead said the practices needed to end. “Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, and Corrections failure to do so is not only abhorrent to us, it also undermines their commitment to rehabilitation and support for people to live good lives after prison.” And she said that with a focus on punishment in prisons, “it is not an accident that horrific stories like these keep being unearthed from prisons across the country – it’s a feature of an outdated colonial system that needs to be radically transformed.”

I would also highly recommend you read this piece on the story, by Ātea editor Leonie Hayden. It’s about being a Māori women and reading about the treatment meted out to others in the prison system, drawing a connection to the racist vitriol that is commonly directed at Māori in public life.

First they said they wouldn’t do it, now the government has asked the Reserve Bank to take rapidly escalating house prices into account when setting monetary policy. As Interest reports, at this stage it is just an ask – finance minister Grant Robertson wants feedback from Reserve Bank governor Adrian Orr on the proposal to “avoid unnecessary instability”. However, if the results the government wants are not forthcoming, it is possible that the remit of the Reserve Bank could be changed, so that house prices are included. In response, Orr wrote a letter of his own.On The Spinoff, we’ve published both and attempted to decode the bureaucratic language in them.

A new RBNZ approach would in theory have a significant effect on aspects of the house price boom. While supply of housing is an ever-present issue in the market driving up prices, many commentators have also pointed the finger at very low interest rates and cuts to the loan to value restrictions on lending as causes, particularly as they combine to drive up demand from investors and first home buyers. If the remit were to change, it would make the prospect of negative interest rates much less likely – here’s an explainer on what that means.

It marks a huge reversal in position from the government, and depending on your point of view is either a case of listening to constituents, or buckling under pressure. As Justin Giovannetti reports, just last week the PM was saying that there’d be no intervention with the Reserve Bank. The very suggestion was described as Muldoonist. Some of that pressure around reining in the Reserve Bank has come from National – shadow treasurer Andrew Bayly has been pushing hard on aspects of the relationship between the government and the central bank. His concern was about a slightly different issue (the lack of conditions on the Funding for Lending programme aimed at banks) but it spoke to a wider breakdown in the previous political consensus that the RBNZ should operate completely independently of the government.

And what does it say about the wider economy? Writing in The Kākā, Bernard Hickey argues that it shows the consequences of an economy “that is really just a housing market with bits tacked on and your banking system is all about lending to landlords and other home buyers.” Because so much of the government’s stimulus money to date has ended up flowing into the housing market, it has effectively acted as a transfer of wealth from taxpayers to property owners. It’s too late to change that now of course, but yesterday’s move indicates the government is concerned with stopping more of the same.

Meanwhile, with supply increasing, a dent may finally be coming in Auckland’s chronic housing shortage, reports Interest’s Greg Ninness. He’s crunched a range of numbers, including population growth, dwelling completion figures, and internal and external migration to come to that conclusion. However, there is a long way to go, because of many years of accumulated growth in the housing shortfall.

A few places around Auckland are closed over a possible case of Covid-19, and our live updates has the details. People who went to Animates Manukau on Saturday afternoon, and Resene Mt Roskill on Friday from 11.45am-12.45pm, are asked to self-isolate and get tested. People who visited a few other locations are being asked to keep an eye out for potential symptoms.

Meanwhile, a salute to the new sacrifices being made by managed isolation workers. As Radio NZ reports, staff shortages are now happening, because of the new conditions put in place on those working in facilities. It involves significant restrictions on the freedom to live a normal life, and for totally understandable reasons, some previous staff weren’t able or willing to sign on to the new contracts.

The late intervention has happened, and the paramedic strike will not be going ahead after all today. A joint media release from St John and FIRST Union, published by NZ Doctor, said that a resolution had been reached, subject to union members ratifying it. The resolution includes a commitment for “full implementation of the independent pay review commissioned by St John while ensuring that no staff member will earn less than they would have from a previous agreement to implement 25% penal rates for nights and weekends for a transitional period.” In other words, the paramedics got what they were after. St John’s will be increasing their operating deficit to pay the settlement, which in turn will probably increase pressure on the government for funding.

Grainne Moss may be about to depart as chief executive of Oranga Tamariki, reports Whatitiri Te Wake for Te Ao News. That’s based on the word of several sources not named in the article, but follows a period in which the organisation has been under sustained pressure over Māori children being taken by the state. As Stuff reports, minister Kelvin Davis hasn’t expressed his full confidence in the chief executive. Meanwhile the Children’s Commissioner is calling for urgent transformation of the organisation, including transferring much more power and responsibility to Māori, or event disestablishment altogether, reports Charlotte Muru-Lanning.

A tense Wellington City Council meeting is looming today, as it will be the first one since Andy Foster joined (or maybe didn’t join) the occupation protest at Shelly Bay. As Stuff reports, the protest is directly against a Council decision, and so therefore if there’s any sense of the mayor joining in, it means he’s effectively protesting his colleagues. Foster is also the subject of a formal complaint at the moment, brought by councillor Jenny Condie. Meanwhile in Invercargill, councillors are vowing to go on with major projects with or without recalcitrant mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt, reports the ODT.

The pork industry is worried pig farmers will be wiped out by a High Court decision on farrowing crates, reports Newshub. The industry’s reps say installing new systems will be expensive, and won’t necessarily improve animal welfare outcomes. That latter point is heavily disputed, and for more, I’d encourage you to go back and read Otago law lecturer Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere on the topic.

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Best believe the hype! (Illustration: Ezra Whittaker)

Right now on The Spinoff: Matthew McAuley introduces the latest episode of Conversations that Count, about mental wellbeing and systems of support. Emily Writes covers a new study on C-section births, and writes about the shaming so often directed at mothers who take that option. Jonathan Cotton finds out just how fast the internet will be on hyperfibre. Emily Writes offers a stirring and accurate defence of Wellington after a recent critical column. Teuila Fuatai writes about Whaea Michelle Kidd, a navigator of the Family Violence Court. Chris Schulz looks back on a bizarre programming decision from TVNZ around The Sopranos, and what it said about the changing TV industry. There’s a brand new episode of Gone By Lunchtime, and everyone in it sounds weirdly fresh and not totally exhausted. And Danyl Mclauchlan has written one of the all-time great pieces of political commentary, about the government of caring and kindness.

For a feature today, a story about someone who made a bad mistake redeeming themselves. Cricketer Lou Vincent got a life ban from the sport for match-fixing, and has been trying to turn his life around ever since, working as a builder in Raglan and offering cricket facilities for players and families in the area. As the NZ Herald’s (paywalled) Andrew Alderson reports, he’s also trying to get that ban overturned. Here’s an excerpt about some of the educational work he’s been doing:

Vincent says speaking to groups about his experiences has been enlightening after some “pretty dark years”.

“I’ve been blown away with the direction it’s taken me, from government agencies to the police to sports integrity units to the Olympic Committee, rugby, soccer, hockey and cricket. I’ll always regret going down the route I did, but you’ve got to learn from your mistakes.

“It took a bit of confidence to face groups of 20-30 and talk about it. They want to know the details of the honeytraps, the changing of the [batting] grips as a signal to the bookies, and the general game within the game.

“When I’m up there it’s like you’re talking about someone else, then I sit in the car afterwards and have to remind myself that was actually me and what a mental time that was in my life. My purpose is that I hope that no other sportsperson has to go through that.”

The new look Moana Pasifika rugby team will be a stern test for the Māori All Blacks, if the team they’ve selected is anything to go by. Stuff reports it includes some of the form backs of the Mitre 10 Cup, and will have Josh Ioane playing 10 – probably the best first five in New Zealand who isn’t currently part of the All Blacks. The game will be played on December 5 in Hamilton. Meanwhile, there’s a bit of intrigue about coach Tana Umaga – he’s booked in to lead the team for this game, but he won’t necessarily take over the team when they (likely) join Super Rugby in 2022.

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