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Ombudsman says positive steps by prisons to keep out COVID-19 has been at the expense of some prisoners’ rights

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The Chief Ombudsman says overall prisons are taking positive steps to keep coronavirus out but this has come at the expense of some prisoners’ rights.

Peter Boshier has published a new report summarising his OPCAT inspections of 46 units in nine prisons in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch during Alert Level 3.

One prison had a case of COVID-19 at the time of inspection.

“They have faced a number of complex challenges managing prisoners during this period. I feel they have responded to the pandemic in a well-resourced, balanced and efficient manner.”

“In the prisons I inspected, the relationship between staff and prisoners was reasonably positive, health and safety measures aimed at preventing the spread of the disease were generally of a high standard, and steps had been taken to make sure everyone understood them.”

However, Mr Boshier says he made some recommendations for improving the conditions and treatment of prisoners in seven prisons.

“I found that some prisoners in some units at four prisons were not receiving access to at least one hour of fresh air on a daily basis, or in some cases were not being provided with activities to occupy their time.”

“One prison was only able to provide some prisoners access to an hour of fresh air every other day. Some prisoners at another prison were unlocked for one hour a day but they only had access to fresh air on weekends.”

Mr Boshier says some prisoners have been kept separate from the general prison population as an infection control measure.

“My inspectors found these prisoners were less likely to have access to fresh air during Alert Levels 4 and 3.”

Mr Boshier says prisons with remand prisoners faced additional challenges in accommodating new arrivals during the pandemic. Many prisons managed this by creating ‘bubbles,’ based on their arrival date.

In most prisons, the amount of time prisoners were able to spend outside their cells (known as ‘unlock time’) was reduced. This was often due to the number of ‘bubbles’ operating in different units, increased sanitisation routines, different prisoner security classifications, and limitations of building layouts.

“Staff reported that in some prisons, units were running more than nine different unlock regimes.”

Mr Boshier says the Department has accepted all of his recommendations for change.

Mr Boshier says he acknowledges the need for firm action to combat COVID-19 and to keep people safe. “However, I firmly believe that independent monitoring is essential during these unprecedented times.”

This latest report is one of three COVID 19 reports on his inspections of places of detention during COVID-19. A report on mental health facilities was released last week and one on aged care facilities is due to be published shortly.

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