Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility. Photo: RNZ

Our women’s jails are failing to address the causes of offending and are instead stark reminders of traumas from the past, writes Christine McCarthy

This week has seen the release of three documents about women in prison.

The Prison Inspectorate released its thematic report on women in prison. The corrections department Ara Poutama launched Wāhine – E rere ana ki te pae hou – its updated women’s strategy, and the Human Rights Commission published First Do No Harm, Sharon Shalev’s report on the use of segregation, restraint, and pepper spray.

Women’s prisons in New Zealand have never received such concentrated attention.

A persistent theme is the inadequacy of prisons to accommodate female prisoners – the majority of whom are trauma victims. In fact, 75 percent of the women currently in Aotearoa’s prisons have suffered family or sexual violence and 52 percent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Our country is not unique in this, and there is international recognition of the importance of trauma-informed prison architecture, such as home-like spaces, greater use of natural light, and green outdoor areas. Arohata Prison’s trauma counselling room and baby bonding room are highlighted in the inspectorate’s report as examples of successful and welcoming spaces.

However, our prisons have far to go to comprehensively achieve this, and the inspectorate’s report highlights this. It noted many outdoor spaces “were simply hardened concrete enclosures with wooden seats and limited exercise equipment or activities”.

One programme facilitator described the room they work with prisoners in as “stark. The room echoes,” while an Arohata prisoner said of her unit: “There is no natural light and I can’t see outside. That dehumanises a person.”

Noises, such as shouting and banging doors, also need to be taken into consideration in design, because these can retraumatise trauma sufferers.

Quantity as well as quality of spaces affect access to educational and training courses. Activity spaces are co-opted for storage. Other spaces are just not suitable.

One education tutor stated: “The rooms are not currently positive learning environments … poor quality furniture, too small and the set-up of the rooms leave us feeling like a sterile learning environment.”

The comparatively lower number of women (6.19 percent) – than men (93.8 percent) – in prison also makes investment in facilities for vocational courses less viable, further limiting options for training.

One clear example of under use was in “self-care units”, which support prisoners developing skills in budgeting, household shopping, meal preparation, cleaning, and laundry. Despite their importance for community reintegration, they were almost unoccupied in two of the three women’s prisons.

The inspectorate identified specific policy hindering their use, but difficulty accessing programmes and maintaining friendships also means that some women don’t want to move to these units.

One Arohata prisoner said: “I broke down in tears when I found out…. I had three more assignments on the graphics course to do to finish it, but I’m not allowed to finish it anymore because we’re not allowed into the main jail again. This unit feels like punishment.”

Another stated: “It’s really lonely up here.”

The revised Wāhine strategy promises “a long-term programme to improve our physical prison environments”.

It directs these efforts at play areas in the Mothers with Babies Units, renovating baby-bonding spaces and the visitor space at Christchurch Women’s Prison, increasing access to recreation in the Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility (ARWCF) Separates Unit, and ensuring appropriate housing allocation for remandees.

It also commits to better use of space to improve access to education and rehabilitation programmes, but the policy lacks a proactive commitment to trauma-informed design and largely shies away from the most damaging aspect of prison architecture: solitary confinement.

The Human Rights Commission report confronts this darkest side of prison, and identifies the high use of segregation in women’s prisons.

Sharon Shalev finds that Māori and Pacific women make up 93 percent of instances of prolonged (more than 15 days) segregation, further compounding the institutionalised racism in our criminal justice system.

The Segregation Unit at ARWCF is described as “barren and cold”, and she says in Management Unit cells the women were unable to have any photographs or pictures on the walls. One ARWCF prisoner stated: “There is no room for any kind of normality.”

These prison conditions are not simply about housing prisoners in antiquated architecture. ARWCF, for example, is a relatively new prison.

We need to shift from prioritising punishment to addressing the complex reasons why people offend.

This is not something Ara Poutama can do alone. It requires a community-wide commitment, and support across the political spectrum.

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