Coronavirus: Rules for prisoner transfers out of Auckland to change after Waikato COVID-19 debacle

The rules for prisoner transfers out of Auckland are changing after a Black Power member was taken to his bail address in the Hauraki District where four others were infected with COVID-19. 

The situation triggered a level 4 lockdown in the area. 

It comes as Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis revealed at least 24 other inmates have crossed the Auckland border since the outbreak began, with none tested on release.

It was a very ordinary court appearance, but the events that followed were anything but. A Black Power gang member on charges including breaching bail was released on bail from Mt Eden Prison. 

Corrections' Chief Custodial Officer Neal Beales says they opposed his release.

"My understanding was that this was due to previous non-compliance."

Non-compliance appears to be a theme - although the Corrections Minister says prisoners, like anyone, need to be allowed to go home. 

He says Corrections did everything right.

"It's like somebody being discharged from hospital is allowed to cross the boundary to go home, so there's very little difference," Davis said.

The difference in this case of course is that the inmate does not appear to have followed the rules. 

The prisoner was picked up on September 8 at around 10am by his sister. That was what his conditions specified. 

But it wasn't just his sister in the car - there were three people in total. Who else was in the car isn't known, and officials did not check. 

"We don't normally check the car when somebody comes to collect somebody," explained Beales.

"We've got no jurisdiction or ability to say 'well, that person shouldn't be in that car with you'."

What is clear is GPS records which show the prisoner stopped at a house in Mt Albert, with the next stop at a house in Mangere, and then on to a supermarket in Pokeno. Finally, there a quick stop on the roadside near his bail address in Whakatiwai. 

But the direction from the court was clear - the prisoner was to make no unnecessary stops. 

The rules will now be changed, so that if prisoners are being delivered to an address at a lower alert level, the person picking them up must come from that lower level.

"If there isn't anyone that can come and collect them, then we'll look at our own mechanisms to transport them back ourselves."

So how many others have left jail and crossed the Auckland border?

"I believe there are about two-dozen," Davis said.

None were tested on departure from the prison, although Corrections says testing prisoners on arrival and isolating them is more important.

"We don't routinely test people who leave prison. We test them when they come in," said Beales.

The case has also thrown the spotlight on issues with court appearances.

"There seems to be a consistent inconsistency," says Craig Tuck, barrister and director of LawAid International Chambers.

Tuck says he's aware of defendants from level 4 being told to come to courthouses by judges in lower levels for appearances. 

"It should never happen, in my view - especially if it's just a process-related matter and not a substantive hearing. It shouldn't happen in normal circumstances and certainly not in level 4, with massive risk."

Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann reminded the judiciary of the situation regarding court appearances on Monday, saying the rules are strict for court appearances. 

"No court participant (e.g. counsel, witness and defendant) is expected to travel across the Auckland Alert Level 3 boundary for court hearings this week (20 September 2021)," she said. 

She said this would change next week but only "if it is determined by the presiding judge that it is in the public interest to do so".

In this case, it's led to a region being locked down and a fourth person in the prisoner's household testing positive.