COVID-positive remand prisoner likely not isolated on arrival, immediately isolating prisoners 'ideal' but not 'practical' - CANZ

A remand prisoner who tested positive for COVID-19 at Mt Eden Corrections Facility was likely not isolated while awaiting their test result.

On Sunday, it was revealed the remand prisoner had returned a positive result for COVID-19 at the Auckland facility after he was taken into custody on Friday night.

It was later confirmed three household contacts of the case had also tested positive for COVID-19 at their residence in the Firth of Thames, a community in the Kaiaua/Whakatīwai area of Waikato located close to Auckland's border. Two are children who attend Mangatangi School - one of whom was symptomatic on Thursday.

Paul Dennehy, the national vice president of the Corrections Association, told Newshub that 13 people had been remanded in custody that night on September 17.

"As due process, they were all tested for COVID-19. On Saturday morning, one of those tests came back as positive. That individual and their cellmate were immediately put into the isolation units. The other 12 prisoners that came in on Friday all tested negative. The site's pandemic protocols and processes kicked into [play] immediately," Dennehy said.

However, Dennehy says he is unsure whether it's protocol for facilities to isolate prisoners on arrival, which would keep them separate from staff and other inmates while their tests are processed. He says he believes some sites isolate prisoners on arrival but is unsure whether that applies to all correctional facilities.

In this case, he says he is unsure if the COVID-positive remand prisoner had been isolated while his swab was processed. 

"The process since the beginning of this pandemic has been that prisoners are coming in, they're tested, and if the results show they need to be isolated, they are. Some sites immediately isolate prisoners, others, I'm not so sure if they do," he said.

Dennehy compared it to a recent case at Auckland's Middlemore Hospital, where a man was kept on the same ward as three other patients despite presenting symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Staff swabbed the man but made the decision to keep him in the same room as the other patients while the test was processed - with a curtain the only barrier between him and the others. Only when the test returned a positive result were the patients isolated in separate units.

"Effectively it's no different to the case in Middlemore Hospital the other week... there were no issues there because they were surrounded by the curtain around the bed," Dennehy said.

He acknowledged it would be "ideal" if each prisoner was isolated in their own cell before being swabbed, but said it wouldn't necessarily be practical or realistic. 

"That would be ideal, everyone has their own cell. Unfortunately the department, many years ago, double-bunked effectively the whole prison estate. 

"So ideally yes - whether it's practical and realistic and possible, I'm unsure."

Dennehy added there are "probably not" enough available cells for each prisoner to be held separately while the swabs are processed.

"We still have a lot of people inside prisons. Whether there's a facility for them to be individually housed on a prison site, I'm not sure."

He says Corrections staff have been doing an "admirable job" under "trying circumstances", calling prisons some of the most protected places against COVID-19 in the country.

"Staff are doing an admirable job under trying circumstances. It was just a matter of time before COVID came into a prison, it's no different to the rest of New Zealand society," he said.

"Prisons have been among the safest places in New Zealand since March last year because of the processes put in from the very start… staff are mindful that if [COVID-19] gets in, it could cause a lot of issues."

Dennehy says although staff adheres to stringent protocols to ensure no illnesses run rampant through prison sites, it was "inevitable" that COVID-19 would slip through the cracks. 

"The staff at Mt Eden, like every other site, just get on and do their job. They're professionals, they are the first responders who are ignored by the public… they are ensuring the safety of those they are managing, as well as their own," he said. 

"It's inevitable… I think it's just a fact of life and I think we need to be maintaining the vigilance that we have… prison life carries on, it has to."

He says affected prisoners will undergo a number of tests over the coming two weeks to ensure no one else has contracted the virus.

"The prisoners' health and welfare is being maintained, they'll have a variety of tests over the coming two weeks. Staff are wearing full PPE. As a union, we're obviously supporting our members. The site prison director has been regularly messaging his staff… we're supporting them in any way, shape or form."

Dennehy says he has no information on the individual regarding their background or charges.

What we know so far

The remand prisoner was released on e-monitored bail from Mt Eden Corrections Facility in central Auckland on September 8 to a residence in the Kaiaua/Whakatīwai community, near the Firth of Thames.

Electronic monitoring shows he remained at the property from when he arrived on September 8 until he self-reported to police at the East Coast Rd boundary checkpoint at Waharau Regional Park.

The man was then held in custody in a cell on his own until his court appearance in the Manukau District Court on Friday, September 17.

He was subsequently remanded in custody at Mt Eden facility with 12 others that night, where they were swabbed for COVID-19 as part of Corrections protocol.

On Sunday night, three members of the man's household in the Firth of Thames tested positive for COVID-19. Of the nine people in the household, four have returned negative results, with one swab pending as of Monday morning.