The Chief Ombudsman revealed today he has found some "deeply concerning" deficiencies at Auckland's Paremoremo Prison following an unannounced eight-day inspection there earlier this year.
In the report, Peter Boshier says inspectors visited the prison, which has capacity for 680 male prisoners, in late January and early February 2020.
The inspection occurred prior to the full onset of the Covid-19 crisis and prior to any decision of the Department of Corrections to lock down prisons other than for essential services.
Boshier said the Auckland prison’s culture remains one of containment rather than rehabilitation, despite promised changes.
He said the new maximum security units on the Paremoremo site, opened in July 2018, were designed to aid the prison rehabilitate prisoners and ready them for reintegrating into the community.
Instead, prisoners in the new units were locked in their cells most of the time and not able to participate in rehabilitation or education programmes, he noted.
"Maximum security prisoners spent between 22-23 hours in their cells," he said.
Generally, accommodation standards were good, the report said.
"All cells were single occupancy and were clean, bright and well-maintained in both the low and maximum security areas of the prison. However, a lack of ventilation in the low and high security cells was an ongoing and unresolved issue at the time of inspection," Boshier said.
The report identified a number of other issues he was significantly concerned about, including two breaches of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
"Pepper spraying a prisoner, after he followed officers’ orders, was unwarranted and amounted to cruel treatment," he said.
"Furthermore, staff had failed to accurately report the incident which was captured on CCTV. This is concerning as staff receive control and restraint training."
He also said that CCTV monitoring of all areas of the intervention support unit, including the toilets, present a significant privacy issue.
At the time of the inspection, staff shortages were having a significant impact on the day-to-day lives of prisoners.
Prisoners were missing out on medical appointments and other reintegration opportunities, including appointments with the Parole Board, WINZ and their case managers, as there were not enough custodial staff to escort them.
"Staff vacancies and unplanned leave, particularly in the high and maximum security units, also meant that both prisoner and staff safety could be compromised," he says.
He also noted that over a third of staff had less than two years’ experience.
"Relationships in maximum security units were largely transactional, leading to an over-reliance on the physical security arrangements."
A survey of prisoners revealed that 35 per cent of those surveyed said they had been assaulted, and 13 per cent sexually assaulted, in the prison. Gangs had a strong presence in the prison.
"A high number of prisoners sought voluntary segregation mostly because of gang issues, bullying, stand-overs, and a fear for personal safety," Boshier said.
Also concerning was the long periods of time prisoners were in the assessment unit, some for over a year. They had nothing to do and limited interaction with others, the report noted.
The Chief Ombudsman made 37 recommendations and the Corrections Department accepted 33 and partially accepted four. The department told Boshier that it has been implementing his recommendations since the inspection earlier this year, including appointing more staff.
He visited the prison on 1 December to check on progress.
"In my view, the Department of Corrections’ intention to shift its operating model away from containing difficult prisoners has yet to be realised. I expect to see significant improvements in the conditions of maximum security prisoners," Boshier said.
The Department of Corrections chief custodial officer Neil Beales said in a statement today that it has to “balance the needs of the people we’re managing while ensuring the safety of our staff and the public at all times”.
“Over Labour weekend a prisoner significantly damaged the door of his cell and managed to gain access to a corridor area where he assaulted a staff member who then needed surgery, in July a group of prisoners refused to be locked in their cells and caused minor damage to property and attempted arson, and in March four prisoners were charged with the murder of another prisoner,” he said.
Beales acknowledged areas of failure and said work has been “completed or commenced in relation to all of the accepted recommendations since the time of the inspection”.
Beales said it was pleasing that the Ombudsman noted that the prison’s facilities were well maintained and clean, and a number of good practices at the prison were noted.