Release prisoners amid Covid surge - Māori Pandemic Group

By Will Trafford

Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā, the National Māori Pandemic Group, is urging the government to consider early release of prisoners as Covid-19 cases soar to triple digits within one of the nation’s corrections facilities.

So far 118 prisoners are confirmed infected at Kohuora, the privately-run Auckland South Corrections Facility at Wiri. 27 staff have tested positive for the virus as 600 prisoners remain locked down to stop the spread.

Kohuora, Auckland South Corrections Facility at Wiri / NZME

Kohuora, the privately managed Auckland South Corrections Facility where 118 prisoners and 27 staff have tested positive for Covid-19 / NZME

Dr Rawiri Jansen of Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā says Corrections has failed prisoners with its vaccination rollout and the department must 'urgently consider decarceration' as part of a public health response to Covid-19.

“Prisons and other sites of detention are places where viruses can spread rapidly, and especially so with one as infectious as Omicron,” Dr Jansen says.

“Current vaccination rates of just over 70 per cent show Corrections has failed to maximise its opportunities to encourage immunisation.”

The group says prison populations have significant numbers of people with underlying health conditions, something they caution could lead to disastrous outcomes if Aotearoa replicates overseas experiences.

“In places like the US and Brazil, incarcerated people have died at much higher rates,” Jansen says.

“This should be a time where we are reducing the number of people going into prison and looking at early release for those already in places of detention.”

A cell at Kohuora, the Auckland South Corrections Facility at Wiri where some 600 prisoners are currently locked down with Covid-19, or awaiting Covid-19 test results / NZME

A cell at Kohuora, the Auckland South Corrections Facility where some 600 prisoners are locked down with Covid-19, or awaiting Covid-19 test results / NZME

Dr Jansen says the government should take immediate steps to reduce the number of offenders going into remand jails such as Auckland's Mount Eden.

“Remand facilities where the turnover is likely higher and the facilities less suitable for safe distancing may be an important transmission pathway,” Jansen says.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis told Māori TV Tuesday he stands by his department’s approach to handling the pandemic, even as cases soar at the Serco-run facility and dozens are isolating at Mt Eden.

“I have the utmost confidence in the staff at prison facilities and want to emphasise my support for all the hard work they are putting in at the moment,” he said.

Davis conceded the effects of an outbreak within such facilities could be disastrous and he expected to be kept informed on outbreak developments.

“I am receiving daily reports about case numbers in prisons across the country and expect to be kept informed by both Serco and Corrections of any serious problems. I also expect both organisations to communicate appropriately with staff, prisoners and whānau," he said.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis (right) picture with Department of Corrections CEO Jeremy Lightfoot / NZME

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis (right) pictured with Department of Corrections CEO Jeremy Lightfoot, Davis told Māori TV Tuesday he stands by his department’s handling of the outbreaks at Kohuora and Mt Eden Corrections Facility / NZME

Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā says there are a number of things that health services and the management of Corrections Facilities can do immediately to keep incarcerated people and staff safe.

“Ensure that all those people incarcerated who want to be vaccinated are able to be and enable people who are trusted to come into the prisons to talk with them about the vaccination programme and answer their concerns,” Jansen said.

“Health services in prison have been poor historically… Ensure Corrections health services are providing the quality primary care services that people in prison are entitled to, particularly those with co-morbidities.”

Serco, the private operator of Kohuora says all prisoners with Covid "are in good spirits" and those exhibiting mild symptoms are being treated with Nurofen and Panadol; none have been transferred to hospitals.