New independent research for the Human Rights Commission examines the harmful treatment and subsequent breaches of human rights of women in segregated housing in prisons across Aotearoa New Zealand.

The report “First Do No Harm: Segregation, Restraint and Pepper Spray use in women’s prisons in New Zealand” is written by Dr Sharon Shalev of the Centre for Criminology and details the harmful practices that many women are subjected to within prison walls.

A webinar was held on the 4th of November to launch the report. The webinar was hosted by the EEO Commissioner and features Dr Shalev speaking about her report, and also includes Awatea Mita, justice advocate for equitable outcomes in the criminal justice system and Professor Tracey McIntosh Professor of Indigenous Studies and Co-Head of Te Wānanga o Waipapa at the University of Auckland.

The report highlights how women in prison face a range of punitive practices including the prolonged use of solitary confinement, being restrained and forcibly undressed, being forced to kneel at the back of the cell while food is delivered, being strip-searched, and, for some, being pepper-sprayed in cells with little prior attempt to de-escalate a situation first.

Dr Sharon Shalev, who authored the report at the invitation of the Human Rights Commission, found that women were segregated significantly (73%) more often than men in New Zealand’s prisons and subjected to harsh and punitive regimes.

More shockingly, Māori and Pacific women disproportionately face prolonged segregation, with as many as 93% of segregations in prison lasting 15 days or longer being of Māori or Pacific women. Such occasions fall under the UN Nelson Mandela Rules’ definition of prolonged solitary confinement, prohibited as a form of torture.

“Prisons are failing our wāhine. They are not yet living up to the aspirations expressed in government policy documents and declarations, nor are they meeting international human rights standards,” said Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Saunoamaali’i Karanina Sumeo.

The majority of women incarcerated in New Zealand’s prisons have had prior exposure to trauma and abuse and have multiple and complex needs. Citing Prof Tracey McIntosh, the report notes that particularly for Māori women in prison, earlier abuse may have been in State institutions, continuing a cycle of intergenerational trauma.

“Women in prison need care, safety and to be instilled with hope to imagine a different life. We cannot continue to retraumatise them within the justice system. Me aro ki te hā o Hine-ahu. We must pay heed to the mana of our wāhine in prisons,” adds Human Rights Commission Senior Indigenous Rights Advisor, Jessica Ngatai.

“Incarcerated women are amongst the most disadvantaged in our society. These excessively punitive and damaging practices revealed in the report must end. All women in our prisons deserve to be treated with respect for their inherent mana and dignity,” said Ms Sumeo.

“Corrections need to have a close and unflinching look at the way in which Māori and Pacific women, in particular, are managed in prison. The laudable aspirations expressed in the various policy statements need to be backed by practical, specific, radical policy and practice changes on the ground,” said Dr Shalev.

The report highlights shortcomings in policy and practice where human rights standards are being breached, resulting in some of our most vulnerable women being subjected to intolerable indignities.

“Our prisons must meet the international human rights standards and rights enshrined in Te Tiriti o Waitangi that Aotearoa New Zealand has committed to respect,” said Ms Sumeo.

“I hope this report helps to facilitate a transition in attitudes and practices on the ground within our correctional facilities,” added Dr Shalev.

Among a list of 26 recommendations, the report calls for an end to the use of pepper spray in women’s prisons, an end to the use of prolonged segregation, adopting culturally responsive programmes for Māori and Pacific women and urgent training in mental health, trauma-informed practice and unconscious bias for prison staff.

“Now more than ever, we need to invest in a justice system that breaks the cycle of violence, discrimination, and abuse and gives women the best possible chance at living a life of dignity within and beyond the prison walls,” said Ms Sumeo.

Key findings at a glance:

• In 2019, women were segregated significantly (73%) more often than men in New Zealand’s prisons.

• In addition to being disproportionately imprisoned (63% of all women in prison), Māori women were also disproportionately segregated (making up 75-78% in some segregation units), and significantly overrepresented in long term segregation.

• 101 occasions in 2019 where women spent 15 days or longer in segregation. The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules) stipulate that prolonged solitary confinement, defined as 15 days or longer, shall be prohibited.

• Māori and Pacific women were disproportionately segregated in Management and Separates Units used for control and punishment. As many as 93% of segregations lasting 15 days or longer were of Māori or Pacific women.

• 103 self-harm incidents were recorded across the women’s prison, the majority in Intervention and Support Units. The report notes a lack of compassion for women who self-harmed on a number of occasions.

• Women’s management plans were focused on compliance. Staff attitudes appeared often to be punitive and inflexible and opportunities to de-escalate situations were missed.

• Women were restrained and forcibly undressed upon admission to Intervention and Support Units and forced to wear anti-rip gowns even where this was a source of agitation and conflict.

• Conditions, security arrangements and regime at the Management and Separates wings at Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility mirrored those in men’s prisons and were correspondingly harsh.

• Pepper spray was used 24 times in women’s prisons in 2019 — 23 of which were in Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility, second only to Christchurch Men’s prison in its absolute number of pepper spray uses.