Prisons are “failing women” as new report reveals Māori and Pacific women disproportionately segregated

Prisons are “failing women” as new report reveals Māori and Pacific women disproportionately segregated

November 3, 2021

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” details the harmful practices that many women are subjected to within prison walls. 

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 of the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford, 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’s 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.