'Punched, kicked, spat at' - New data reveals 82% jump in prison staff assaults

New data shows prison workers are almost twice as likely to be assaulted on the job today as they were just five years ago, as the Department of Corrections grapples with a growing gang population and the impact of methamphetamine addiction.

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The new information obtained by 1 NEWS has been gathered over the last five years. Source: 1 NEWS

The annual statistics, obtained by 1 NEWS under the Official Information Act, show prisons are becoming an increasingly dangerous workplace, with the overall number of assaults on staff jumping by a massive 82 per cent between 2015 and 2020.

It’s been described by union representatives as a “traumatic” development for the guards, leaving them heading to work with the knowledge they could be assaulted on any given day.

The data shows that while serious assaults fluctuate, at an average of just under 20 a year nationwide, the number of what the prison calls “non-serious assaults” has jumped by 83 per cent.

The term refers to any assault that results in an injury which may require medical treatment, up to one night of observation in hospital, and was used to categorise 323 incidents in 2019/2020.

The number of “no injury” assaults increased by 85 per cent over the same timeframe, with 548 incidents recorded in 2019/2020.

The Acting National Commissioner of Corrections, Ben Clark, told 1 NEWS in a statement that while no assault is acceptable, the department must “acknowledge the reality that these incidents do occur, and that prisons can be difficult environments”.

Mr Clark explained that the number of gang-affiliated prisoners has been rising in recent years, in line with trends in the community, and now makes up 35 per cent of the entire jail population.

“Gang members are over-represented in acts of disorder and violence in prison,” he says. “Gang members also are known to incite other prisoners to carry out violent acts on behalf of the gangs.”

The acting commissioner also attributed the increase to the department’s heavy focus on the reporting of all incidents, no matter how minor, and a growing proportion of the prison population on remand awaiting court proceedings.

“There is a strong statistical association between remand status and incidents of disorder within prison, including assaults,” he said.

The prison service had also seen an increase in the number of prisoners with “extensive methamphetamine use and abuse habits."

“Meth abuse is associated with significant and lasting impacts on mental and emotional functioning, including issues such as anger control,” Mr Clark added.

One of those attacked on the job was former guard James Crawford, who spent nearly four years at Rimutaka and Arohata prisons in Wellington.

“I was lucky, I was never seriously assaulted, but I've been punched, kicked, spat at,” he said.

“You're essentially turning up to work, and locking yourself in a room with 60 people who would quite happily kill you if they thought they could get away with it, so it's quite a scary thing to do.”

Mr Crawford worked in emergency teams responding to fights between prisoners, and says one of his colleagues was once left in hospital with a fractured skull after an incident.

“You're wondering, ‘how am I going to react, what's going to happen to me, are they going take offence to that, are they going hit me from behind, are they going to get a makeshift weapon or pay someone else to do it, what's going to be the fallout from that?’”

The impact of gangs is one the most concerning developments and academic Jarrod Gilbert, the director of criminal justice at Canterbury University, says it comes as gang influence increases in the wider community.

“Violence within the gang realm is seen as a legitimate form of dispute resolution, so jumping to violence when problems occur is an encouraged and normal way to solve problems,” he says.

“Often when there are conflicts in the wider community, we see those flow through into tensions within the prison, and of course we have seen an increase in certain gang conflicts in the community, so that may be increasing concerns within prison.”

The rise is prompting the Corrections Association, the union representing prison guards, to call for heavier punishments for prisoners carrying out the assaults.

“It's traumatic, no one should go to work with the knowledge they could be assaulted in the workplace,” president Alan Whitley said.

“We need to have a really good hard look at our internal disciplinary system and it needs to be ramped up, even if that requires a change in the act, to hold prisoners to account, when they do step over the line and assault a staff member in any way.”

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis told 1 NEWS that the department does as much as they can to protect their staff.

“No assaults are acceptable and we expect that anybody found guilty of assault will be held to account,” he said.

“We have to base our decisions on research and what works, rather than sort of emotional responses, they are working in very dangerous situations with the most dangerous people in our society, and we're doing everything that we can to make sure that they're safe in their work.

As for any potential changes, Corrections remains open to suggestions, Davis said. 

“If there's compelling evidence that there are law changes that make a difference, then we're open to considering them, but we really need to work on solid evidence.”

But, despite those efforts, the data currently shows that the number of assaults is going in the wrong direction.

And that leaves a toll for people like James Crawford, who decided to leave the prison service in 2018.

“Certainly there was times when I was dreading going into work,” he said.

"Just from being locked inside with these guys all day, constantly being sworn at, yelled at, being involved in physical confrontations every single day, it can get to you.”

With 889 assaults on staff just last year, those concerns are certainly set to continue.