Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis orders urgent overhaul and review of women's prisons

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis has told the department to overhaul its processes and management of women in prison.

Davis has also apologised to the three inmates who raised concerns about the treatment of prisoners at Auckland Women's Prison.

The Department of Corrections has also apologised to the women and is likely to offer them a formal apology and financial settlement in future.

The department has come under scrutiny after allegations of "cruel and inhumane" treatment of inmates at the prison.

The claims were aired during an arson trial for one of the women, Mihi Bassett, who was sentenced today.

At sentencing today, the Judge ruled Bassett had suffered enough and would not receive extra time on her sentence for arson at the prison in 2019.

As a result of the case, Davis sought advice from the Chief Inspector who found no evidence of deliberate cruelty from staff but staff overall lacked proper oversight and guidance.

He also sought further information from Corrections, received advice from the Attorney-General about his concerns and has now reviewed the Chief Inspector's preliminary findings.

"The failings highlighted in the Chief Inspector's report are unacceptable. The lack of oversight and leadership has had a major impact on prisoners," Davis said.

Davis has now asked the Department of Corrections to conduct an urgent overhaul of the maximum security classification for women, the development of management plans for women and a review of all women's prisons.

In a letter to the Department's chief executive Jeremy Lightfoot, Davis said he wanted and expected better.

The Minister wants additional training for frontline custodial staff, an external team bought in to review the complaints process and for Corrections to review parts of the Prison Operations Manual.

Davis also expects the department to release a detailed plan outlining how it will address systemic issues raised about Auckland Women's Prison with a staff member from the Chief Inspector's Office allocated to oversee implementation for 12 months.

"I expect Corrections and, in particular, its leadership to act urgently to make these changes," Davis said.

Davis has also apologised to the women involved "for the harm caused, given the system I am responsible for failed to treat them in line with what is right, what is good."

He said it was appropriate the Department of Corrections to do the same.

In a statement, Corrections said it had met with three women to acknowledge and apologise for the way they were managed at Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility (ARWCF) between February 2019 and February 2020.

Regional Commissioner Lynette Cave said the meeting was the first opportunity to apologise for the systemic failures that led to these women being managed in line with an increasingly restrictive regime in response to their escalating challenging behaviours.

"I would like to publicly reiterate the apology we have made to these women. Despite the challenges of working with people who sometimes exhibit very difficult behaviour, we must always uphold the highest standards. I am deeply sorry that for these three women, we didn't."

During the meetings Corrections agreed with each of the women to continue to meet with them and work through options for us to make amends, Cave said.

"This will be guided by what they want to see happen in response, and is likely to include a formal apology, access to counselling, financial settlement and participation in designing our policies and practices for managing women with challenging and violent behaviour in future. Our intent is for this process to be mana-enhancing for the women, and restorative."

"While we can't undo how our actions affected these women at the time, or the distress they may have suffered, we have made a number of changes at the prison to prevent this from ever happening again, and it's important that we now try to put things right for them."

Corrections met with each of the women on Friday 19 March 2021 after the Chief Inspector provided the department with the preliminary findings of its investigation into the women's treatment over a period of 13 months in 2019 and early 2020.