Corrections apologises to 15 women given improper internal searches in prison

The Department of Corrections has apologised to 15 women who were given improper internal searches while incarcerated.

Up to 34 female inmates were subjected to invasive physical examinations after they were suspected of concealing contraband. 

The searches, which were not authorised by Corrections, were carried out between 2006 and 2016 at Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility, where Corrections says the practice was "systemic". There were also two isolated incidents at Arohata Prison in 2016.

No contraband was found as a result of the searches.

National Commissioner Rachel Leota says Corrections has apologised to 15 women who were searched while they were in prison. Each woman was paid $25,000 in financial compensation and given access to counselling.

Corrections is currently trying to contact a further 14 former inmates who may have been subjected to improper searches.

"On behalf of the Department of Corrections, I deeply regret that this practice was ever able to occur, and over such a long period of time," Leota said in a statement. "I apologise unreservedly for the searches that were carried out, and for any distress that this has caused to these women."

Women suspected of concealing contraband, which Corrections said can pose "significant health risks", were given the option of an internal search to allow them to return to their unit sooner.

In July 2013 an inmate asked to speak to an Inspector after she was subjected to an internal search. The Inspector told her the search was permitted under Corrections policy, which was incorrect.

The searches were not permitted by the Corrections Act.

In August 2016 the same woman made a complaint about the 2013 search, and the doctor who searched her was removed from duties at the prison. Her claim was settled in 2017 and she received an apology from Corrections.

The independent Corrections Inspectorate launched an investigation into improper searches in New Zealand prisons. A preliminary draft report found 34 women in total were given suspected or confirmed internal searches.

Records indicate that of the 42 suspected or confirmed improper searches during the 10-year period, 38 were conducted by two female doctors. One male doctor carried out three of the searches and a Corrections nurse carried out one.

The report did not find evidence of "malicious or improper intention" from the four staff members.

"These searches were intrusive and potentially traumatising for these women," Leota said. "While we can't undo the distress they may have suffered at the time or subsequently, it's critical that we try to put things right."

Two contracted medical officers who had conducted the searches at Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility were fired in January 2018. One had been partially suspended in October 2016 and both were fully suspended in April 2017.

Leota said the doctor responsible for the two searches at Arohata Prison is "no longer contracted to provide services to the Department".

Corrections is currently pursuing legal action against one of the doctors in relation to their suspension and termination of their services.

The final Inspectorate report will determine whether employment action against Corrections staff over the improper searches will go ahead. That report will be publicly released and provided to both police and the Medical Council.

Correction reviewed and reinforced its policies and staff directions "to ensure that they explicitly state that internal searches for contraband are not permitted at any time". It confirmed the searches were no longer going on in any prisons.

Any former inmates who believe they may have been internally searched for contraband while they were in prison are urged to contact Corrections on 0800 604 304.