New Zealand: prison suicide attempt response suggests 'systemic issues'

A leading advocate for prison reform says distressing findings of how an inmate was treated should lead to significant change within the criminal justice system.

Documents obtained by RNZ shows Auckland Women’s Prison planned to keep Mihi Bassett in a segregation unit known as the pound “indefinitely” - breaking laws governing how, and how long, prisoners can be held there.

Guards also threatened to pepper-spray her minutes after she attempted suicide. In order to be fed, she had to lie on the floor with her hands behind her head while food was put through a hatch in the cell door.

Professor Tracey McIntosh from the University of Auckland told Midday Report that the release of the documents shed light on parts of the criminal justice system that most people didn’t usually see. The disclosures were upsetting but should help drive change in the system, she said.

She said Bassett’s experience was not an isolated example and showed “non-cruel people can do cruel things” within the confines of a maximum security prison. Corrections had adopted the Hōkai Rangi strategy in 2019 so anything that went against its underlying healing and humanising ethos must be discussed. The prison seemed to have created a harmful environment for people working there, she said.

“That their actions [the prison guards] at the time seemed legitimate and rational to them, particularly after a suicide attempt, does speak to more systemic issues.” Professor McIntosh said she had worked with some male prisoners in a special treatment unit recently and had that seen staff taking a healing, humanising and accountable approach to the inmates could achieve “astonishing results”.

However, the unit only treated about 30 men in a 1000-inmate prison so the programmes needed to be scaled up.

The prison environment had a significant impact on how people would be reintegrated into the community, she said. “I’ve been with people who are incarcerated and met with them when they are handcuffed behind their backs and my own feeling is a real sense of whakamā - I feel ashamed personally.” Such institutional cruelty had a humiliating aspect. “Everyone who is present, their humanity is degraded.”

The information released on Bassett showed that within the unit there was no evidence of culturally informed, trauma-informed care.

The response to her suicide attempt made no sense outside the prison gates and it was essential to try to understand how staff could believe it was acceptable within the prison.

Professor McIntosh said if the Hōkai Rangi strategy was not fully embedded at all levels, if whānau were not fully involved, and if healing was not considered both within and outside prison it would not succeed.

“Corrections holds a particular leadership role in that in creating real change. So I would hope that these devastating actions that have occurred at least can create room for real change.” She said it would require “radical honesty” looking at the prison system.