Nearly 800 positions unstaffed at Corrections amid rapid rise in assaults on workers

"Dire" is how the Corrections Association has described working conditions in our prisons across the country.

Nearly 800 Corrections positions are unstaffed as the government department grapples with a 156 percent rise in assaults on workers in the last decades.

"Low morale for staff. They're tired, they're exhausted, they don't feel valued, and they feel that the prisoners come before them," Corrections Association president Floyd du Plessis told Newshub.

Figures obtained by Newshub show there are 779 unstaffed roles at Corrections, of which 438 are vacant positions and 341 are unavailable to work due to illness.

The union says it's been compounded by other problems.

"For the last two years we haven't had a proper training package to on-board new recruits so our recruitment has completely slowed down," du Plessis said.

Figures also show a 156 percent increase in assaults on staff in the last decade. In 2013 there were 355 assaults on staff compared to 909 in 2022 - and we're only halfway through the year.

"Right now, unfortunately, the situation is dire," du Plessis added.

He wrote to Corrections earlier this month saying staff deserve better leadership, better training, and safer working conditions.

Corrections recognises there are challenges.

"It's been an incredibly tough couple of years across New Zealand and we really felt it quite hard in the prisons," Corrections Deputy National Commissioner Leigh Marsh told Newshub.

The department is on a recruitment mission to fill the gaps.

"We're doing some work with Customs and MBIE [Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment] for MIQ [managed isolation and quarantine] workers to see if we can bring some of them across," Marsh said.

Jackie Foster from Social Justice Aotearoa told Newshub the Government needs to do more.

"How can the executive of Corrections perform when the minister and the Government are not giving them the tools?"

In a statement, Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis blamed the staffing challenges on COVID-19 and record low unemployment.

He says the Government made a $200 million investment in frontline staff in the latest Budget and that Corrections is ramping up recruitment. Last month it had more than 500 applications.

"With the borders now open there is also the option of recruiting internationally. But despite the shortages, I have been assured prisons remain safe with the lower population allowing options to consolidate units," Davis said.

"Corrections Association is an important part of the solution to this challenge and I encourage them to work in good faith with both Corrections and myself."

But the department is clearly under pressure.

Last month nine staff at Rimutaka Prison were stood down amid an investigation into corruption.

And in a separate incident, Newshub revealed a psychologist working at the prison was put on leave, after allegations she had a sexual relationship with an inmate and supplied a prisoner with methamphetamine.

There was also the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

"It did see around 75 frontline staff stood down," Marsh said.

It's a depleted department desperate for some new recruits.