Female Inmates In Cook Islands Prison Are Worse Off Than Men

Prisoners live in 'inhumane conditions'; lack access to rehabilitation programs

By Florence Syme-Buchanan 

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, March 29, 2017) – Female inmates at Arorangi Prison are worse off than their male counterparts, living in “inhumane” conditions and lacking equal access to rehabilitation programmes.

And the McDermott-Matapo inquiry into the October 2016 triple shooting tragedy recommends immediate changes to the “deplorable” situation.

Denis McDermott and Tevai Matapo noted that female inmates lack the same opportunities to be on the prison work programme and participate in the craft programme. Women prisoners do not participate in the work programme, nor do they have access to the craft making shed, though both were established to assist with rehabilitation.

“We have assessed that their conditions of incarceration are poor and certainly inhumane,” said inquiry team leader McDermott.

Both he and Matapo say conditions at Arorangi Prison for both female and male prisoners fall well below World Health Organisation (WHO) standards.

Three female prisoners and one on remand for sentencing are housed separately within the prison’s administration building in two medium security cells. There are just two female wardens and the inquiry team has recommended employing three more. This would ensure a female warden is on duty at all times.

McDermott says they elected not to inspect female quarters because a female warden wasn’t on duty at the time, but had seen sufficient and established enough to be able to comment.

“We were particularly concerned about the work programmes for female prisoners or perhaps the lack thereof.  When we visited the prison, the three females were locked in the cell area and not free in any way to participate in the workshop. 

“In my opinion, it is very unwise to have female prisoners in a mixed prison environment without any female wardens and that is why we made the recommendation to immediately increase the number of female wardens.

“It’s also very unfair to cater for male prisoners with occupational therapy and not the females. There are a number of things the women could be doing to be productive and keep their brains active while they serve their sentence.”

CI News understands female prisoners can participate in an educational programme that has included small business accounting, crafts, mathematics and short story writing. The hour-long classes are held once a week.

Women prisoners do not have a separate room for family visits that can include their children. CI News was also told women prisoners are often ordered to work in the kitchen preparing food for the entire prison population of 34, plus duty wardens.

Studies of female prison conditions show women are more deeply affected than men by their time in prison and may suffer harmful and devastating consequences of their detention. WHO-commissioned studies show female inmates frequently suffer from mental health problems, among which post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and self-harming are regularly reported. They suffer from mental health problems to a higher degree than male prisoners.

The McDermott-Matapo report devotes significant attention to PTSD. The investigators named the engagement of a fulltime clinical psychologist for prison and emergency services as one of the three most important recommendations amongst the 47 made in the report. Equipping police and upgrading prison facilities were also at the top of the recommendations list.

A multi-country study found that the most common complaint across female inmate prisons was lack of space and hygiene. These issues, which also affect Arorangi Prison, have been addressed by past reports on prison conditions and Corrective Services. 

Former Police Commissioner Tevai Matapo says things are happening in the community and “…we are aware of it, but we keep postponing it, keep delaying action.”

He said Corrective Services was a good example of “a problem that’s been there for years and people have talked about it to the point that we don’t want to make any more noise about it because we are just sick and tired of it. But nothing has been done.”

Tevai stresses that the time for complacency is long over and immediate changes must happen as the country has reaped the consequences of inaction.

“We have come to rue our complacency.”

The Cook Islands National Council of Women, Business and Professional Women’s Association and the Cook Islands National Youth Council were all asked to comment for this article. Only the Youth Council responded, saying they noted from the report that “female inmates do not have the same opportunities as males at the prison in terms of creating their own income, for instance the craft workshop and the work programme.”

The CINYC thinks a solution could be “to create some opportunities for female inmates to have their own crafts facility where they can also produce items to create income for themselves.”

“Training could be provided (perhaps through the Cook Islands Tertiary Training Institute) to the female inmates in areas such as weaving, ei-making for airport transfer organisations and training to create tivaevae which fetch high prices from visitors as an opportunity for them to earn income and gain invaluable practical skills whilst also reviving cultural traditions. In effect this would also help them to assimilate back into society.”

A World Health Organisation report says the needs of women held in detention have received little attention and continue to be neglected by health systems and prison authorities.

“One reason for this, too readily accepted until now, is that women prisoners are a clear minority group within prisons all over the world.

“It is only recently that attention has been drawn to the fact that a minority status does not justify the widespread ignorance of women’s basic rights and the considerable gender insensitivity still dominating criminal justice systems.” 

According to the McDermott-Matapo report, two wardens are rostered each shift to provide the normal 24-hour security cover. Most staff work on either the work scheme programme or the work gang programme. Eight job vacancies currently exist at the prison. Apart from the superintendent, all staff holding ranked positions have done so in an acting capacity for over two years

The report said those in acting positions had not been paid at the higher rate due to a shortfall in the allocated budget, a matter that needs to be addressed by the Secretary of Justice.     

Cook Islands News
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