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Dehumanising Practices At Auckland Women’s Prison Constitute Cruel, Inhuman And Degrading Treatment

Amnesty International says the reported experiences of several women at Auckland Region Women’s Correctional Facility (ARWCF) at a hearing this week in Auckland’s Manukau District Court are deeply disturbing. We have serious questions about whether some of these practices could amount to torture.

The hearing revealed processes used at the prison include;

‘Cell-buster extraction’; where several cans of pepper spray are pumped into a confined cell before five to six officers in full riot gear physically pull the occupant out of cell.

‘Feeding procedure’: where people in high security units are made to put their nose on the ground before they’re allowed their food on security grounds.

Other issues include;

People laying complaints that were not being properly documented (one person claimed they had made more than 30 complaints but court documents only showed ten recorded).

Despite a person displaying desperate behaviour and her and others indicating she wanted to take her own life, she was not moved to an appropriate unit.

Sanitation; Bedding and clothes not changed frequently, personal sanitation products not provided unless used products shown.

This also follows Official Information obtained by Amnesty International and an internal Corrections review in September that showed previous failings of Corrections to keep adequate records of lockdown hours (pre-COVID-19) and that use of force at the prison was too readily used rather than being used as a last resort. The information in September also brought to light serious concerns regarding access to healthcare, and workplace issues that had created a problematic environment for staff.

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In response to these most recent revelations regarding the use of pepper spray ‘cell-buster extraction’, dehumanising food procedures, irregular record-keeping, and a lack of sanitation care, Amnesty International has today launched an urgent action for people to take part in calling for an immediate ban on pepper spray "cell-busting" extraction, degrading practices that amount to withholding food, better record keeping, an overhaul of the complaints system and for a full independent inquiry to ascertain the state of the prison system in Aotearoa.

Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand Executive Director Meg de Ronde was at last week’s disputed facts hearing and says the experiences paint a harrowing picture.

"These women are survivors. The way Mihi Bassett describes feeling as though they were ‘at war’ speaks to how much they’ve endured. And let’s be clear here, it is Corrections that has the power and the responsibility to ensure a human rights-respecting system."

De Ronde says Corrections must ensure that all people have rights, including people in prison.

"Everyone, including people in prison, have the right to dignity and care. Nobody would disagree with that. Restriction of liberty is the punishment, it does not mean further punishment is permitted, or that we care less about people in prison, it certainly doesn’t mean you can deny their dignity."

She says the complaints process is in dire need of an overhaul.

"The internal review by Corrections of this facility and last week’s disputed facts hearing has indicated that the complaint system is not working and needs to be reviewed which is why we are calling for an overhaul of the complaints process. We need a prison system that adequately documents, listens and responds to complaints in a timely manner with a genuine effort to rectify issues."

The practice of "cell-bust" extractions using pepper spray must also come to an end.

"We are calling for an end to the unnecessary and dangerous procedure of pepper spray 'cell-bust' extractions. Pepper spray must only be used where there is a serious threat and it’s proportionate to the threat, and even then, it must not be used for a prolonged period or in a confined space. The way these ‘cell-busts’ are carried out sets up an atmosphere of violence, risks health and it is in breach of international human rights standards. Pepper spray should never be used for prolonged periods, in confined spaces or in situations of passive resistance."

"I don’t believe six people in full riot gear with several cans of pepper spray loaded into a hose could be proportionate to a person curled up in a shower with a towel on their head with no means of escape. Corrections’ own review has already found a culture where the use of force at the prison was too readily used rather than being used as a last resort; this risks creating a system that is punitive and violent, rather than rehabilitative. Pepper spray cell-busting is a prime example of this."

She says data on Correction’s compliance with their own minimum standards such as access to fresh air and exercise, hygiene, food and healthcare must be monitored and publicly reported on regularly.

" We are concerned by the failure of Corrections to ensure it has in place a trustworthy national system able to record and monitor minimum prisoner entitlements accurately. Investigations have indicated a flawed and primarily paper-based system for monitoring and reporting that makes it difficult to know with certainty whether minimum entitlements are being met in all our prisons. This is a basic requirement of a just prison system. We want a prison system where people have access to healthcare, fresh clothes, bedding and food that they don’t have to beg for. To do this, at the most basic level, we must have adequate record-keeping. We don’t believe it’s a big ask. It’s the kind of system anyone would expect from a modern institution. We’re calling for regular national-wide monitoring and reporting on minimum entitlements in each prison that is publicly available for scrutiny.

De Ronde says the degrading food practices described must immediately come to an end.

"People should never be asked to kneel with their face on the floor for the food that they are entitled to receive under domestic and international human rights standards. Food should never be withheld or reduced for not kneeling or any other disciplinary purpose. Such practices are denying the inherent dignity of a human being. A Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture has said that to deliberately withhold food or water for certain purposes could constitute torture. We’re calling for an immediate end to any practice that amounts to withholding food from people in prison, for punishment or otherwise, including making people kneel with their forehead on floor to receive food."

She says a full independent inquiry into Aotearoa’s prison system is the only way to see the full extent of the issues.

"Quite frankly, we are horrified that Corrections seems to think that the pepper spray ‘cell-busts’ and the withholding of food are acceptable processes. Investigations by AIANZ and others in civil society have already highlighted serious concerns in the prison system. We are concerned that there are human rights abuses occurring across the prison system. That’s why an inquiry is needed that can investigate deeper structural issues which are critical for ensuring our prison system fully exemplifies its human rights obligations. That’s why we believe only an independent inquiry into the prison system will give us a clear picture of the full state of prisons in New Zealand."

She adds the most effective system is not a punitive one, but a rehabilitative one.

"We don’t want a system that ignores people in prison so much that they end up resorting to desperate measures to be heard. The fact that attempts to reach out were ignored is heart-breaking. No one should ever be returned to a cell where their partner has attempted to take their own life. No one should have to put their nose on the ground for food. No one should ever have such limited human contact in places such as D-block for months on end. We want to see immediate action now to stop practices that are deeply inhumane, and longer term action to ensure this never happens again."

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