Auckland Women's Prison: Inmates gassed in their cells, 'begging' for food

  • Long Read
  • 24/11/2020
Mihi Bassett was kept in the pound (the segregation unit) at Auckland Women's Prison for four months.
Mihi Bassett was kept in the pound (the segregation unit) at Auckland Women's Prison for four months. Photo credit: Vinay Ranchhod / RNZ

By Guyon Espiner of RNZ

Warning: This story discusses rape, violence, depression and suicide.

An asthmatic woman is repeatedly pepper sprayed and has to show her used sanitary products to male guards, while her seriously depressed girlfriend is left in isolation until she attempts suicide. Guyon Espiner reveals what's going on at Auckland Women's prison.

It wasn't the first time Karma Cripps had been bombed in her prison cell, but it was definitely the worst time.

Six guards were outside her door, dressed like they were going to war, with masks, shields and helmets to protect them from the fallout of what they were about to do.

A silver hose, about the width of a pen, attached to a black canister, was slipped under her door.

Then the guards were yelling: "Spray A1!" The first canister of pepper spray went off and an orange, hazy gas, thick like chilli sauce, filled Cripps' small cell.

Her body felt like it was on fire, but she was not down.

"Spray A2!"

Cripps could hear the women down the corridor yelling. "She's got asthma, she's got asthma! She can't breathe!" But the guards at Auckland Region Women's Correctional Facility, known as Auckland Women's Prison, knew that already.

"Spray A3!" There was nowhere to hide.

"I'm trying to cover my face, I'm trying to cover my body," Cripps recalls later. "I even put my head down the toilet bowl just because I know that's a little bit of air."

But they kept going, deploying four canisters in all and placing towels under the door to stop the gas escaping.

After about 20 minutes the prison guards had completed what they call a 'cell buster extraction' and what the women call being bombed. The objective is to incapacitate the prisoner so guards can remove them from the cell without fear of resistance.

At least three other women at the prison were bombed multiple times too.

In fact, what happened to Mihi Bassett at the prison was worse. Bassett is Cripps' partner. They have been together three years. Cripps says she is the strong one and Bassett is more vulnerable. Bassett was the one who asked the Māori chaplin to come when things got really dark.

Bassett had many dark days in the prison's segregation unit, which the guards call D-Wing and the prisoners call the pound.

She had to perform humiliating rituals just to get food. She missed many meals, had to change in front of male guards and plead for basic hygiene products.

The worst day for Bassett was the worst day for Cripps too. It was 21 January, 2020, more than three months into their four-month stint in the pound. (Prisoners seen as a security risk are normally sent to segregation in D-wing for 14 days. But Bassett and Kripps were kept in the pound from October 2019 to February 2020. Four months with nothing to do. No TV. No activities. Nothing.)

Later, Cripps told the story of that day in court, after police prosecuted Bassett and two other inmates for burning Corrections property. How women are treated at Auckland Women's Prison, all came out in front of a judge.

"That day I could hear this ripping sound. I thought it was a sheet or a blanket but it ended up being a towel," Cripps said. Her cell was opposite Bassett's, so she knew her partner had gone into the shower cubicle, but there was no sound of running water.

"So I'm already coming up with my own scenario in my head and I just know something is going to happen."

She hit the emergency button and yelled for the guards to come. The cell is right next to the staff base, but it seemed to take minutes for them to arrive.

"Then I'm just screaming, banging, screaming, banging."

Then the staff were screaming too. "Break! Break! Code Blue!"

This is the story of Karma Cripps and Mihi Bassett; partners in life and partners in crime and punishment.

It's also the story of Auckland Women's Prison, which, according to an internal review this year, has a "punitive culture," where staff are too quick to resort to force.

Hannah Kim, the lawyer acting for Cripps and Bassett, puts it this way: "Like prisoners being zoo animals and officers being like zookeepers," she says, in her cramped office in Manukau, about a ten-minute drive from the prison itself. "Just degrading and inhumane."

But this is also the story of a number. A banal percentage. The number is 68 and inside its curves hides a nation's shame. Sixty-eight percent of the women at Auckland Women's Prison are Māori, making them the most incarcerated group of indiginous women on earth.

These are women that Tracey McIntosh, a professor of Indigenous Studies at Auckland University, knows well, as a scholar of criminology and a frequent visitor to Auckland Women's Prison.

"They have had to speak around landscapes of devastation that are hard to imagine and one of the things that comes out very strong in them is they don't want to repeat it," she says. "Many of them have given up on themselves but they don't want that for those that are to come."

Mihi Bassett is Tūhoe. The best times in prison for her are when the kapa haka festival Te Matatini is on TV. She loves kapa haka and she's pretty good at it. Her reo isn't bad either, although without books or TV in the pound it was hard to keep it up.

Bassett, who is 27 now, has been in and out of prison since she was 18.

But it wasn't always going to be like this.

When she was a girl growing up in Ōpōtiki in the eastern Bay of Plenty, she wanted to be like John, the eldest of her three brothers. She describes her parents as hard working. Her dad worked in a kiwifruit orchard, although he was also a gang member. Her mum was one of the first women in the area to work as a beekeeper.

But it was John she was close to and today, she has tattoos of him on her body. John was in the army and so Mihi joined the cadets as a young girl. Things were good. Then, according to her psychiatric report, life began to darken.

John died in an army training accident, aged 18. Bassett lost her grandfather around the same time, but John's loss hurt the most. Much later she told the psychiatrist that in the depths of D-wing she was "determined to join her brother John".

Bassett began to drink alcohol and smoke cannabis at the age of nine.

She has a rap sheet stretching to 75 offences now, but at first the crimes weren't too serious. At 16 she was in front of the Ōpōtiki Youth Court for unlawfully entering a building. There were three burglaries by her 17th birthday.

Around that time, in 2010, she was raped by a gang member. He broke down the toilet door at a gang party to get to her.

The rape was an "extremely traumatic incident," her pychiatric report says. She recalls it "at least twice a week" and has frequent flashbacks. "She described herself as broken and gross."

Bassett's family meted out their own kind of justice, beating up the rapist.

Later, it was vigilante justice that put Bassett where she is now - in jail for 10 years for a violent home invasion in June 2014.

Bassett's girlfriend at the time (not Cripps) had a nephew who they believed was being sexually abused. Bassett and her mates "decided to do a hit on a paedophile", according to court records.

They took a double barrel shotgun, hammers and a knife to the man's home and attacked him and his family. There were broken bones, lacerations and a stab wound. It was a devastating and frightening home invasion which left indelible scars on five people.

Initially, Bassett wasn't a suspect. It wasn't until three months after the attack, when she called the police in an attempt to clear her girlfriend's name, that the police realised she had even been at the crime scene.

At sentencing, the judge noted that, while Bassett had a rap sheet as long as her arm, violent offending like this was out of character.

But Bassett got 10 years and is not due out until 2026. And that was before she lit the fire in Auckland Women's Prison last year. For that, the police prosecutor wanted to add two more years to her sentence.

She ended up in court over the arson, because Corrections pursued Bassett and two others over the $20,000 of damaged property. But in doing so it put itself on trial too. We know how the fire started; it's on CCTV. But why did it start? What was really going on in that prison?

On Monday 14 October, 2019, just after 10.30pm, Bassett was fishing with her cousin Paris Reed and another inmate, Tarina McClutchie.

Fishing is what prisoners call attaching items to a line, made of blankets or sheets, so they can pass them between cells. But on that night they were playing with fire.

Bassett lit one end of the fishing line, her cousin pulled the line in front of her cell and set fire to clothes, bedding and documents and McClutchie manoeuvred the line so the fire would burn in the unit's foyer, according to police charge sheets.

Why did they do it? At that point, the women were in the maximum security unit that the prison calls C Wing and the prisoners call 'maxi'.

Maxi is better than the pound, but women are still locked in their cells 23 hours a day, which meets the definition of solitary confinement under the Mandela Rules set down by the United Nations.

These conditions are dangerous for prisoners and staff, according to Professor Tracey McIntosh, who was a member of Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora, the government's 2019 Justice Advisory Group tasked with shaping a less punitive justice system.

"My concern would not only be for people who are kept in isolation under these types of conditions. but also those that are working with them," McIntosh says. "It generates the conditions where harm is more likely to be produced and reproduced."

Action and reaction. And so it was with the fire. No one was injured and it was extinguished in less than two minutes, but the chain of cause and effect stretched a long way in both directions.

In the weeks before the fire, McClutchie had been bombed in her cell and had used a bin liner to cover her face from the pepper spray. So the guards took away the bin liners. The prisoners started to push their rubbish under the doors. So the fire had fuel to burn.

A few days after the arson, Bassett and her cousin Paris Reed were sent to the pound. About two weeks later, Karma Cripps and Tarina McClutchie followed.

Reed, who grew up with Bassett in Ōpōtiki, spent a month in D-Wing. At the arson trial, she recounted her life in the pound.

By law all prisoners are entitled to at least one hour out of their cells each day for exercise. In D-Wing that means time in the yard. But the yard is just a caged cubicle six steps wide, attached to the prison cell by a door mechanically controlled by the guards.

Prisoners are handcuffed at all times when outside their cells.

Meals are served through a hatch in the cell door but the prison wanted an extra layer of security. At court, Reed recalled what guards would instruct her to do before they would give her food. "Place your forehead on the ground, lock your arms and your legs in the back and lie your face down on the concrete right next to the toilet."

She recalled her reaction too. "Animals don't even get fed like that. I'm not going to lie down and put my head down on the floor right next to the toilet just to be fed."

Lawyer Hannah Kim says the prisoners felt like they were having to beg for food. If they were too proud to beg they went hungry, until one of them relented and used the fishing technique to drag a sandwich across the ground and share it with the others.

They also had to repeatedly ask for toilet paper, cleaning products, personal hygiene products and towels, the women said.

"Karma said in evidence that she had to show used sanitary products to be given a new one," Kim said. "And that came from both female and male prison guards."

It looks like you've opened a Pandora's box, a lawyer colleague told Hannah Kim as she began to discover how her clients were treated in prison.

What shocked Kim most were the pepper spray bombings.

The tactic, now the subject of separate court action by another lawyer and a Human Rights Commission complaint, has been used multiple times on women at the prison, including on Cripps, who has asthma.

"Luckily nobody died," Kim says. "How many canisters does it take to really harm a prisoner? I doubt they know that."

Professor McIntosh says the pepper spray bombing "would not meet the standards of humane or appropriate treatment" and she points out what she sees as an important distinction in the justice system.

"The punishment is prison. The prison itself should not be a place where you are punished."

But the public doesn't always see it that way. "The idea that people go to prison, and are subjected to harsh conditions, is not only tolerated in New Zealand society, there is often quite an enthusiasm for it."

Kim asked for video footage of Cripps being bombed in her cell but Corrections only ever showed her the aftermath, which she describes as a shambles.

"You could see other prisoners yelling from their rooms. 'Go inside. Get her. She can't breathe. Just go inside and take her out of the room'. And officers would just stand there not knowing what to do. It felt like people, you know, just outside a lion's cage."

But the prison staff certainly knew the impact the cell buster extractions were having on the women, including on Mihi Bassett, well before she attempted suicide in January 2020.

Notes from a Maximum Security prison staff meeting on 21 November, 2019 say that the CNR (control and restraint techniques) and pepper spray "may have impacted on the wellbeing of the women".

One of the action points listed in the memo is that "the health centre will be contacted to enquire about trauma counselling support" for Bassett.

Bassett's mental health was already starting to go down hill by then and she feared other inmates were suffering too. One had "faeces smeared on a plate near her door".

Bassett and Cripps said the lack of privacy made things worse.

"There were male officers and I felt violated whenever they looked at me through the window," Cripps said. "If I need to get clean clothes I need to undress in front of the officers, kneel down and they slip in a new set of clothes. When this went on for months and months even I was about to lose it."

Bassett said she didn't eat for four days after refusing to humiliate herself to be fed. Corrections says it doesn't know how long she went without food because records are not kept.

"I just felt like dying," Bassett said in court. "I was just waking up, dark, going to sleep, dark, waking up crying, going to sleep crying, it was just, nah, it was pretty hard out."

The prison staff knew this, Bassett told the court. "I told the staff. Like they were asking me, 'How are you?' and I was like, 'Bro I just wanna die'."

She called on the Māori chaplin, but by January 2020 things were critical. On 20 January she could not sleep. The next day she had made up her mind.

Bassett said sorry for trying to kill herself, according to a prison report from 22 January.

"Bassett M apologised to the unit staff that found her in her cell and she was very embarrassed that staff had to find her that way."

The file note, with the title Right Track, said in the 10 years Bassett had been in prison she'd never felt suicidal, but now felt she had nothing to live for.

"She is frustrated with not having anything to do each day. She feels that no matter how much they comply with the rules nothing changes for them and it feels like nobody cares about her and her partner."

Bassett was examined by a nurse after the suicide attempt and moved to the Intensive Support Unit. But she was moved back to the pound the next day and left there for several more weeks.

Cripps was placed in Bassett's old cell, a move which appalled their lawyer Hannah Kim. "They put Karma into Mihi's old room, which is where Mihi tried to kill herself," she says. "That to me is unnecessarily cruel."

There is plenty of cruelty in prison. But it often comes from good people working in bad systems, Professor McIntosh says from her office at Te Wānanga o Waipapa, the School of Māori Studies and Pacific Studies at Auckland University.

McIntosh has spent a lot of time in prisons and is not naive about the reality faced by Corrections Officers. "You and I don't go to work with the thought that there is a possibility that we'll be assaulted that day."

She is not naive about the impact offenders have on their victims. "I've worked with young people whose actions have had a devastating effect that will go beyond this generation."

But she says we shouldn't be naive about what we think we are achieving with prisons as they are. "The idea that you can just lock people up and that's the problem solved forever is obviously a fallacy. It's a fantasy."

McIntosh says the fact that 68 percent of the inmates at Auckland Women's prison are Māori illustrates the "gross disproportionality" in the justice system. "It speaks to real mamae, real pain."

We spend more money on Corrections in one year - $2.4 billion - than has been paid out in all the Treaty of Waitangi settlements, but we don't seem to worry about what comes out the other end, she says.

"Why do we have such low expectations for a system where there's been significant investment?"

She reads a poem she came across while teaching a creative writing course in prison. It was written by Maia who is 27 now, but was locked up for murder at 14 years old.

Maybe chances were never chanced and life never breathed me

Maybe everyone gave up on me and the devil came and claimed me

Maybe failure was inevitable and the inevitable never failed me

Maybe love hated me and hate really loved me

Maybe family were associates and associates were my family

Maybe the dark seemed to bring me light and the light brought me under Maybe captivity captured me and my life really eluded me

Maybe I can't give up as that means I'm letting the system win

Maybe time and time again I fail and fail time and time again

Maybe chances were never chanced and life never breathed me

Outside the Manukau District Court court at 8.40am on a stunning Friday morning the justice production line grinds on. Three Corrections vans queue up to ferry prisoners into cells beneath the building.

In the sprawling reception area a huge screen scrolls over like an airport destination board, listing the courtrooms the defendants are to appear in. Māori name after Māori name.

From the back of courtroom one you can just glimpse the rollercoaster through a window that looks out to the Rainbow's End fun park next door.

The ride whirls into view in the window above the judge as Bassett takes the stand in a grey prison jumper to take questions from a young police prosecutor in a smart blue suit.

Very little of what happened to Bassett, Cripps, Reed and McClutchie is contested by Corrections. The bombing with pepper spray, making women lie on the ground to get food, being refused meals, getting changed in front of male guards - none of it is disputed.

But why did it happen? Corrections makes the point that Bassett was hostile. Action and reaction. Bassett doesn't deny this.

"It was like going to war. They were hostile, we were hostile so it was just a never ending repetitive cycle of ugly. Every day," Bassett says.

The police prosecutor wants to show just how ugly it was for Corrections. Was Bassett verbally aggressive to staff? "Umm. Most times. Yup," she says. Did she threaten to kick a staff member's head in? "Can't remember but possibly something like that, yup."

Before being pepper sprayed for a second day running, did she refuse to relocate peacefully? "Nah I didn't refuse to relocate peacefully. Just was scared. Knowing what happened the day before. Was hiding beneath the bed."

By the police prosecutor's count, Bassett was violent or threatened violence to Corrections staff 65 times and had 42 disciplinary hearings.

Again there is little dispute about what happened but the events are seen from wildly different perspectives. It's the same stunning south Auckland morning but one person sees it from the courtroom and another sees it from the rollercoaster next door.

Alison Fowlie, deputy prison director at Auckland Women's Prison, takes the stand in her Corrections uniform, but she wasn't in her role when the events took place so can only talk about how the prison is supposed to work.

If the women set off a sprinkler they have to get out of the cell because it floods and becomes unsafe, she says. If they don't get out, they know they could get bombed with pepper spray.

The women say they set off the sprinklers to get attention because their basic needs aren't being met.

Fowlie says the women have to lie on the ground to get food because they have been pushing their hands through the feeding hatch and that presents a danger.

The women say they were just desperate to be seen and heard.

Manukau District Court judge David McNaughton has to try to make sense of these different perspectives. Why, the silver haired judge wants to know, would Bassett stay in her cell after activating a sprinkler, when she knows she'll be bombed for refusing?

In protest, Bassett explains. "There is no excuse for it, your honour. I was just refusing full stop."

I get it, Judge McNaughton says.

He turns his gaze on Corrections boss Alison Fowlie. Why does the prison make women lie face down on the ground to get food? "It looks pretty extreme as a security measure. Can't you just be asked to stand back against the wall while the food is delivered through the hatch?"

Fowlie says it's justified on security grounds.

Why use six guards in riot gear for the cell busting extractions? "That looks like an overwhelming use of force against one single prisoner," Judge McNaughton says.

"The review has been completed and it's been assessed as being justified," Fowlie responds.

The judge won't decide on Bassett's sentence for the prison arson until February, but it's clear he is taking the mitigating circumstances seriously and is deeply concerned about how she was treated in prison.

When a psychiatrist examined Bassett in September - nearly a year after she was sent to the pound - he found she had PTSD from being raped in 2010 and had tried to suppress the incident with drugs and alcohol.

"The punitive approach from the custodial officers had a detrimental effect and exacerbated her PTSD symptoms," the psychiatrist wrote.

"It was evident that the ongoing management isolation, basic facilities with no proper clothing and bedding, lack of social stimulation and treatment as a caged animal has worsened her depressive symptoms."

The report says Bassett wants to start a family and concludes by saying she can become a fully functioning citizen one day if allowed to. "Rather than a punitive approach it is relevant to note that Ms Bassett is a young woman with significant potential ... determined to have a fresh start".

Where to get help:

  • Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.
  • Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
  • Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202
  • Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)
  • Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email

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