Physical distancing in crowded prisons is next to impossible. If Covid-19 makes it into prisons, almost 10,000 people could be at risk.

New Zealand has almost 10,000 people in prisons, a third of whom are double-bunked. 

To date, there are no confirmed cases of Covid-19 in prisons, but prisoner rights advocates worry an outbreak could be deadly.

All visits to prisoners have been halted as the nation locks down for a month, but prison guards will remain a link to the outside world the virus could hitch a ride on. 

Around the world there is a movement to reduce prison populations to lower the risk. 

This does not appear to be the case in New Zealand, although Newsroom has been told by the Minister of Corrections Kelvin Davis that further changes are due to be made in the next 24 to 48 hours.

“This is a dynamic situation and acting quickly now can potentially prevent the worst.”

Neither Davis, nor the Department of Corrections, hinted at what the changes might be.

In the United States, some prisons are rushing to decrease prison populations and are releasing low-risk prisoners who are at high-risk of contracting Covid-19. In New York, almost 40 prisoners, including Harvey Weinstein, as well as prison staff, have tested positive for the virus. 

In Iran, 85,000 prisoners were temporarily released in an attempt to reduce the prison death toll.

There are 18 prisons in New Zealand, with Rimutaka Prison housing over 1000 inmates, and Mount Eden 950. Auckland South Corrections Centre is the third largest with 913 inmates.

As of December 2019, 1.3 percent of New Zealand’s sentenced prisoners were classed as maximum security and 18.3 percent were high security.

The remaining 80 percent are classified as low medium, low, minimum, or an unclassified risk.

Almost 40 percent of prisoners’ most serious offence is related to violence, followed by sexual offences, which accounts for 20 percent of the most serious convictions.

Close to 52 percent of prisoners are Māori.

At present, around 34 percent of the prison population is double-bunked.

The Department of Corrections national commissioner Rachel Leota said there were “robust plans” in place to stop Covid-19 spreading in prison.

“We’re encouraging prisoners to maintain a two metre distance from each other wherever possible, wash their hands frequently, cough and sneeze into their elbow, discard used tissues, talk to staff if they are unwell and carry out additional cleaning measures.”

Measures to isolate sick prisoners were in place. Leota said these were practised during last year’s measles outbreak.

“The secure and controlled nature of the prison environment means we are able to quickly isolate prisoners as required, restrict their movements, and identify people who would have been in contact with them if required.”

While there are no confirmed cases at present, she said prisoners showing symptoms of Covid-19 had been isolated. New prisoners have been kept separate for 14 days “as far as practicable”. 

“We are also managing prisoners over 70 years old and those who are vulnerable due to underlying health conditions, separately.”

Davis said prisoners due for release during the lockdown would be released as normal and “out of gate” support will be in place.

Prison staff have been asked to stay home when sick and to advise management if they have been in contact with a person who has been confirmed as having Covid-19. 

Staff working with new arrivals have face masks and gloves. Those dealing with unwell prisoners have eyewear, gowns, and face shields. Around 10,000 staff are employed in prisons.

To help cope with the suspension of all visitors during the lockdown, inmates are being given a $5 phone card each week and there will be an increase of the amount of inbound emails printed and given to inmates. Replies need to be made by post.

People Against Prisons Aotearoa’s Emilie Rākete thinks that unless action is taken, lives could be lost.

“The only sane option that the Department of Corrections has right now is the immediate release of low- and medium-security prisoners, either to emergency accommodation or to their communities.”

She worries those who do become ill will be placed in intensive supervision units in an attempt to curb spread. These are effectively solitary confinement and while it might seem like an easy solution to the problem there’s a catch.

“People will do everything that they can to avoid getting put in them, which means that they’ll assumedly cover up symptoms and try not to be recognised as being sick.”

Without decarceration, she fears the outcome could be disastrous, especially for those sharing a cell if an outbreak occurs.

“That ensures transmission. If you and another person are locked in a cell together, you’re definitely going to get each other sick.”

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