Inmates who assault Corrections' staff face "no consequences" for their behaviour, according to Corrections' associate vice president, as officers are encouraged to use a more hands-off approach to controlling New Zealand's criminals.
On Wednesday, Newshub revealed in an exclusive report that 'non-serious' assaults of staff by prison inmates have increased by 97 percent in the 2019-2020 period, compared to the numbers recorded in 2016-2017. Gang involvement in these assaults has also increased by 114 percent.
'Non-serious' assaults can still result in overnight hospital stays, and may include acts such as "gouging" or "biting".
There has also been a 64 percent increase in prisoners seriously assaulting other inmates. Of those attacks, there's been a 93 percent increase in incidents involving gang members.
However, Corrections' associate vice president Paul Dennehy says inmates responsible for the attacks rarely face punishment - a crushing blow to the staff members that physically bore the brunt of their behaviour.
"From a staff perspective, the violence has just increased exponentially. There are no consequences for prisoners assaulting staff within prison, there are no charges laid against them either internally or by the police," he told The AM Show on Thursday morning.
Dennehy attributes some of this to a "softening" by the department in how prisoners are managed. He believes staff have been "subtly" encouraged to be less hard-nosed and more hands-off in their approach - a system he says has given "too much leeway" to prisoners.
"There's been a softening by the department on how we manage prisoners - if they commit minor infractions, staff are told not to do anything about it, which gives [inmates] a sense of [being] bulletproof and that they can do what they want," he explained.
Alan Whitley from the Corrections Association of New Zealand (CANZ) - the union that represents a portion of New Zealand prison staff - echoed the sentiment, saying if prisoners are not held to account, it will inflate their sense of power.
Dennehy says internally, a prisoner who assaults a staff member can be charged with misconduct and may be confined to their cell or denied certain privileges, such as TV access. However, management will often say the inmate is still entitled to attend their various programmes.
"If you're going to attack a staff member, you shouldn't have any of those things."
He says the correct protocol would be for site management to take the injured Corrections' officer to the police, when the staffer is able to, in order for them to formally lay charges.
But in reality, that process usually does not go to plan, Dennehy says.
"We find when we do that, or we take them ourselves, police are somewhat reluctant to do it. You might have a prisoner who is serving a lengthy period of imprisonment, and so their (the police) thought is basically - what's the point in charging them? They may get a few extra months, they're already doing 10 years, there is no value to that.
"From a staff member's perspective, it completely devalues the trauma that they've been through."
Speaking to Newshub for Wednesday's exclusive report, Corrections' chief custodial officer Neil Beales said the increase in assaults is due to more violent people entering the system, and reflects the state of New Zealand's communities.
In a statement, the Department of Corrections said it is working hard to improve the outcomes for staff members and reduce the number of assaults in New Zealand's prisons.