Families not being able to visit relatives in prison 'catastrophic', advocacy group Pillars says

Warning: This article discusses self-harm.

Family members of prisoners say they haven’t been able to see their loved ones for months, due to COVID-19 and staffing levels at prisons.

Advocates say it's causing extreme stress for prisoners, their partners and children.

Maxine Gay, the general manager of advocacy group Pillars, said prisoner behaviour was deteriorating as a result.

"It's been catastrophic for some and it's been going on for months and months," she told AM. "When you have stories of 12-year-old kids self-harming because they cannot see their parent… they may have witnessed the arrest so they're still traumatised by that, and they've not been able to have any access to the parent."

Prisoners' family members have called for face-to-face visits to resume - given New Zealand was learning to live with COVID-19. 

Gay said it created an enormous disconnect when prisoners couldn't see their children.

"There's something deeply troubling - deeply wrong - with the system that actually denies children access to someone that they love."

She said Corrections could make a difference by allowing children and other family members to see their imprisoned relatives face-to-face.

"Nobody thinks about the children, the mums, the dads, the siblings, the parents when somebody is incarcerated.

"We have a systemic problem here where whānau are simply not considered when people are incarcerated.

"It's irrefutable that, if family and whānau maintain contact while they are imprisoned, then there is way less recidivism. We are also less likely to see the next generation of people who are incarcerated."

In a statement, Corrections said it realised people had been denied face-to-face contact due to COVID-19 and had provided better access to phones, email and audio-visual (AVL) calls.

"We have experienced a number of interconnected challenges, with COVID-19 stressors, border closures and record low unemployment rates making it more challenging to recruit and retain staff," Corrections said.

"In August 2021, the country again moved to alert level 4 and face-to-face visits were suspended at our Auckland and north Waikato sites.

"On January 23 this year, the remaining prison sites suspended face-to-face visits due to the increased risk posed by the community outbreak due to the Omicron variant.

"In order to manage the risks presented by the widespread outbreak we have continued to restrict some activities in prisons, including visits, to keep people in prison safe."

While visits had been restricted, "they have still taken place by other means such as over the phone, AVL where available and postal, courier and email communication in line with our legally privileged correspondence/documents processes", Corrections said.