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The Behaviour Management Regime was the highest-security unit in the country's highest-security prison.

It was intended as the ultimate measure of control over the most brutal and dangerous criminals.

But prison bosses ignored warnings from their own psychiatric staff that it was a threat to inmates' mental health and was against international guidelines.

A High Court Judge this week awarded compensation to some of those who suffered under the regime.

Justice Ronald Young said authorities at Auckland Prison at Paremoremo had ignored concerns over the psychological effects of isolating prisoners in tiny cells for up to 23 hours a day.

The cells had no windows and little ventilation.

The court was told BMR inmates had to wash their toilets with a bucket and rag used by as many as six other inmates.

They were denied watches and calendars and allowed two hours, twice a week, to exercise.

Clothing and bedding were rarely changed.

In his judgement, Justice Young said the programme ignored expressions of concern from the department's psychiatric staff.

While he did not accept all the prisoners' claims, he said the department ignored warnings about possible damage to inmates' mental health, and ignored international best practice for such regimes.

A few rules could be seen as pointlessly punitive - for example, the refusal to supply individual inmate laundry bags and the control over toilet paper.

"This combination of circumstances convinces me that inmates on BMR were not treated with the humanity, and with respect to the inherent dignity that they were entitled to as human beings," ruled Justice Young.