Auckland Prison inmates confined to cells for 44 hours straight due to COVID-19 worker shortage

The sister of an inmate at the maximum-security Auckland Prison has lashed out at Corrections after he was confined to his cell for more than 44 hours straight due to a COVID-induced staffing shortage.

The woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, had been contacted by her brother after he and his unit were finally allowed 'unlock time' at midday on Monday, having been trapped behind bars since 3:30pm on Saturday.

Her brother told her he and many of his fellow inmates at the correctional facility in Paremoremo, on Auckland's North Shore, hadn't even been let out for fresh air or a phone call.

"In my mind, that goes against human rights," she said.

It comes as Corrections grapples with an outbreak of hundreds of COVID-19 cases amongst its prison population.

As of 9am on Monday, there were 359 active COVID-19 cases in correctional facilities across New Zealand - 56 of which were in Auckland Prison. Only Mt Eden Prison, with 153 cases, has more.

Corrections admitted six units at Auckland Prison had "more limited unlock time than is usual" over the weekend as a result of staff needing to isolate due to either testing positive for COVID-19 or being exposed via a household contact.

The Government department's deputy national commissioner Leigh Marsh said the spread of COVID-19 had resulted in fewer custodial and health staff being available for work at very short notice.

"Decisions such as this are not made lightly but are done with the overall safety and security of the prison, the prisoners and other staff as the only consideration," she said.

But Newshub was told this incident wasn't a one-off.

Pre-COVID, inmates would usually be let out of their cells for roughly nine hours each day, between the hours of 8am and 5pm.

But the woman Newshub spoke to said since mid-February, when Omicron was first detected among New Zealand's prison population, there were multiple occasions when high-security units were placed in strict isolation for stretches of more than 24 hours.

Corrections said a last-minute staff shortage was behind the lack of 'unlock time' for Auckland Prison inmates over the weekend.
Corrections said a last-minute staff shortage was behind the lack of 'unlock time' for Auckland Prison inmates over the weekend. Photo credit: Newshub.

Her brother told her no case managers had been in contact with him to help with rehabilitation courses and low- and medium-security inmates were being held in high-security units.

The woman said the experience had been really tough on her brother.

"He told me people are falling to pieces being locked up for so long," she said.

"It has been extremely frustrating for him. When they do get let out they're only let out for half an hour or an hour to make phone calls or whatever, so mentally it's challenging.

"They don't have anything to do in the time when they are in their cell, so it's been quite testing. He's struggling."

Under Section 69 of the Corrections Act 2004, every prisoner is entitled to at least one hour of physical exercise each day - though inmates are provided with more time outside their cells wherever possible.

This minimum entitlement may be denied, however, if there is an emergency in the prison, the security of the prison is threatened or the health and safety of a person is at risk.

Corrections told Newshub while unlock time is "critically important" for prisoners, it's hard to provide it when a significant number of prisoners are being managed in quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure.

Marsh said at the moment, it's difficult to provide unlock time without creating an opportunity for the virus to spread to staff or other prisoners, and it is not possible to safely facilitate this for every prisoner every day.

"We do not underestimate the serious impact these restrictions are having on the wellbeing of people in prison," she said. "We know it is critically important for people in prison to keep in touch with their friends and whānau, and have sufficient time outside their cells. 

"Reinstating visits and greater unlock hours is a priority for us, and we will do this as soon as it is possible for us to do so safely."

'Time for Corrections to do something'

People Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA), an organisation that campaigns for jails to be abolished and for better treatment of inmates, says it's "angry but not surprised" to hear Corrections has kept people locked in their cells for nearly two days straight.

"This period of cell confinement violates not only Corrections policy, but also the 'aspirational' Hōkai Rangi strategy which Corrections points to as its roadmap to a human prison system," a spokesperson said.

"At every possible opportunity - from forcing prisoners to defecate in open yards at Ngawha, to forcing them to drink silty water at Waikeria, to locking them in solitary at Pāremoremo - Corrections treats incarcerated people like subhumans."

The group has been calling on the Government department to reduce New Zealand's prison population as quickly as possible since COVID-19 made landfall on our shores more than two years ago.

It wants Corrections to advance parole hearings so as many prisoners as possible can be sent home.

But despite a drop of 1089 prisoners in the year to November 2020, PAPA says Corrections is largely "choosing to let people who are already living in a terrible situation bear the brunt of the disruption caused by the pandemic".

"Corrections has seen this crisis coming since January 2020. It's time for them to actually do something."

PAPA says the 44-hour stretch without unlock time is just the latest example of Corrections' "total disregard" for prisoner wellbeing. It argues self-improvement and rehabilitation become near-impossible when inmates are forced to sit in solitary confinement for days at a time.

Marsh said staff are working to ensure prisoners are regularly provided with updated information on COVID-19 and support, including any mental health support that is required.

Corrections is also continuously reviewing its settings and actively planning for how it can ease restrictions in the future, but will keep restrictions in place for now to protect its vulnerable prison population, she said.

Marsh is adamant that providing prisoners being managed in quarantine with their minimum entitlements is a priority.