Corrections grappling with dramatic rise of 'punches', 'weaponised' assaults in prisons

The number of assaults in New Zealand prisons is dramatically rising, with attacks involving inmates increasing as well more violence directed at Corrections staff.

When it comes to prisoners attacking staff, there's been a 97 percent increase in 'non-serious' assaults, and gang involvement in those has increased by 114 percent. These figures compare the period 2016-2017 to 2019-2020.

There has been a slight decrease in the number of 'serious' assaults against staff.

Although some assaults are categorised as 'non-serious', Corrections' own definition of that term calls into question how serious they actually are.

'Non-serious' assaults can still result in overnight hospital stays. They may include attacks involving X-rays and stitches, and could be acts like "gouging" or "biting".

There's also been a 64 increase in prisoners seriously assaulting other inmates. Of those attacks, there's been a 93 percent increase in incidents involving gang members.

Newshub spoke to former prison guard 'Dave' - which is a fake name used to protect his identity - who said he was attacked while on the job.

"I was knocked unconscious, and it was a spontaneous attack, so it was unforeseen. So, you couldn't see it coming," he said.

Dave said while he worked for Corrections, staff felt as though they couldn't speak up or talk about this behaviour openly. 

"There's a culture of fear. A lot of people would like to come forward and speak, but they will be ostracised by the Department of Corrections."

When Newshub spoke to Corrections, it didn't deny there was a problem and said it's working hard on reducing assaults.

Chief custodial officer Neil Beales said the assaults are a result of more violent people entering the system, and is a reflection of what's happening in the community. He doesn't shy away from discussing what his staff are seeing.

"There'll be punches, kicks, sometimes they might be weaponised, there might be weapons involved, it could be hot water, we're seeing a rise in that over the years, it could be spitting."

Beales said there are psychological threats against inmates or officers' families too.

On why violence is increasing, he said it could be a whole range of reasons, including more people in communities joining gangs or an increase in mental health problems.

Alan Whitley from the Corrections Association of New Zealand (CANZ) - the union that represents a portion of New Zealand prison staff - said he's hopeful a crackdown on behaviour would see better outcomes for its staff.

"If they're not held to account they get quite brave and they continue on [acting violently].

That's why holding prisoners to account for all their indiscretions needs to happen."

Corrections said it is protecting its staff in a challenging environment, saying it's committed to working harder to improve outcomes and lower the number of assaults behind bars.