Corrections officers 'let down' by their seniors, accountability taken 'too late' - Kelvin Davis

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis has strongly condemned the treatment of women in New Zealand's prisons, claiming the department "let down" its officers by failing to provide guidance and training.

On Monday, Davis ordered the Department of Corrections to conduct an urgent review into the treatment of imprisoned women, demanding an overhaul of its processes and management practices. 

The department has come under scrutiny after three inmates at Auckland Women's Prison alleged they were subjected to "cruel and inhumane" treatment. The claims were aired during an arson trial for one of the women, Mihi Bassett, who was sentenced on Monday. At sentencing, 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 provided the department with the preliminary findings of its investigation into the women's treatment over a period of 13 months. The Chief Inspector found no evidence of deliberate cruelty from staff, but a lack of sufficient guidance and leadership.

Davis also sought further information from the Department of Corrections and received advice from the Attorney-General about his concerns, and ordered the urgent overhaul after reviewing the Chief Inspector's report.

Speaking to The AM Show on Tuesday, Davis said the department has been asked to make a number of changes across several areas, including Corrections' use of force, segregation, and management of difficult situations, he said. The department will be reporting back on its progress.

"The Corrections officers, I feel sorry for them - they were let down by their seniors," Davis said. "There needed to be somebody to break the circuit."

Although Davis was reluctant to outline specific examples of the treatment inmates were subjected to by Corrections staff, he acknowledged the department's lack of accountability was the "worst thing".

"I think the worst thing was that at no stage did anyone in authority say, 'what we're doing is not working'. They needed to step back and reassess the situation and work differently with those women. It did happen eventually, but it happened too late, and there was harm caused to those women," he told The AM Show.

"It is appropriate that Corrections apologise. It's also appropriate that myself as the Minister of Corrections - responsible for the system - apologises as well."

He added that treating women as if they are men "is wrong", corroborating allegations that Corrections staff used excessive force against the inmates.

Examples he did provide were that women were allegedly made to lie on the floor before receiving food, and segregation was enforced for prolonged periods.

Davis admitted that prisons are "tough places", but disagreed with host Duncan Garner's suggestion that convicted criminals "deserve" harsh penalties for failing to abide by the rules. 

"We don't want people to be further harmed or traumatised by their time in prisons," Davis said.

"We've got to make sure that when people leave prison, they're better people than when they went in. The punishment is being in prison - they shouldn't be punished while they're in prison."

Kelvin Davis.
Kelvin Davis. Photo credit: Getty

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

On Monday, the Minister said he wanted 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. The department is also expected to release a detailed plan outlining how it will address the systemic issues with a staff member from the Chief Inspector's Office, allocated to oversee implementation for 12 months.

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.