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.
Mihi Bassett was kept in the pound (the segregation unit) at Auckland Women's Prison for four months. Photo: RNZ/Vinay Ranchhod
Warning: This story discusses rape, violence, depression and suicide.
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.
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.
Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly
"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 Mori chaplain 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!"
Auckland Women's Prison has a "punitive culture" and staff are too quick to resort to force, an internal review found Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly
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 Mori, making them the most incarcerated group of indigenous 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 Thoe. 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.
Mihi Bassett lost her brother and grandfather around the same time Photo: Supplied
When she was a girl growing up in ptiki 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 ptiki 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?
Professor Tracey McIntosh says keeping inmates in isolation generates conditions where harm is "more likely to be produced and reproduced" Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly
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 Uep Hpai 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 ptiki, spent a month in D-Wing. At the arson trial, she recounted her life in the pound.
Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly
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."
Lawyer Hannah Kim was shocked to find Auckland Women's Prison bombed inmates with pepper spray Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly
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."
Mihi Bassett told the court that after months in the pound, she felt like dying Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly
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 Mori chaplain, but by January 2020 things were critical. On 20 January she could not sleep. The next day she had made up her mind.
The Intensive Support Unit, where Mihi Bassett was briefly moved to after her suicide attempt. She was sent back to the pound the next day Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly
Bassett said sorry for trying to kill herself, according to a prison report from 22 January.
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