Corrections failing to protect staff, says injured former guard

Corazon Miller
Source: 1News

A former prison guard inside Mt Eden prison's mental health unit was injured so badly on the job he's had to retire at just 44. More than a year on from the attack his colleagues say little has changed.

They describe a working culture that's putting staff and inmates at risk.

Corazon Miller investigates the culture behind bars.

It was a routine task for officers inside Mt Eden prison's mental health unit - guards supervising inmates on the phone, alone, inside an office with no surveillance cameras.

Within the volatile environment of a prison, these tasks are not without risk. Corrections management knows this. But despite at least one serious assault happening there, and multiple concerns raised, staff say it is still a regular part of the job.

So when Anderson Freire De Oliveira was tasked with the job on February 16 last year, he did as he was told - no questions asked. But his compliance has cost him his health, the job he loved and his financial security.

In a single instance that day, life as he knew it changed.

The Aucklander was entering data into a computer when he felt the first punch hit him on the side of the face. He never saw it coming. The punch dislocated his jaw.

The prisoner he was supervising had been triggered into a rage by a person on the other side of the phone. Oliveira became the target of that rage.

"At that point I didn't know what was happening," he recalls. " I was behind the desk. Then he stood up next to me and he punched me a number of times on his head. I felt I was blinking. That's the sensation I had."

It all happened so quickly, Oliveira had no time to switch on his body camera and there were no cameras in the room - just one outside.

"At that point I felt, 'Wow, it's my time now.' I couldn't do much. What I could do is follow the procedure."

It took him several attempts to restrain the prisoner and finally call for help.

He was left with serious injuries, including head trauma, and a wrist and shoulder sprain.

'Nothing has changed'

More than a year on he's still struggling. He's been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and still feels the effect of the head trauma.

"I used to run 15km every day on my days off, twice a day. Now I can not walk two minutes because I lose my balance."

And while Oliveira would still like the prisoner to be held accountable, he says ultimately it's the system at fault.

"After my accident nothing has changed. The room is still there, the officers are still doing the same routine - the same phone call by themselves, without any help. The room is still not under surveillance."

He says Corrections has failed to prioritise safety.

"We just want to go to work and come back home safe to our families."

And while Oliveira made it home that day, he says he's not the man he used to be.

"My biggest concern is for how long will I be without being myself."

1News has received correspondence from other staffers working on the unit alongside Oliveira. All echo concerns around how the process around giving prisoners phone calls on the unit is managed.

One staffer writes: "I do not believe our so-called hierarchy kept our safety paramount. Yes we can challenge them, but if we do, we are deemed as being a difficult member."

They say while they are told to stay in pairs on the job, only one officer is made available to take prisoners to the room where calls are made.

"This is a highly unacceptable practice and yet this happens all over the prison."

Another staffer says the lack of surveillance was raised with management, but staff have not been told to steer clear of using the offices.

In fact, they say it's still common practice to have only one guard supervising prisoners inside the unmonitored space.

Hundreds of assaults recorded

The latest available data shows across all Corrections' prison facilities in 2021 there were 24 assaults on staff that were so serious they required at least a night in hospital, on top of 302 assaults the department classified as less serious. These were incidents where staff were physically abused and may have needed medical treatment or hospital admission, but no ongoing treatment.

There were also 549 other assaults that involved a physical altercation but didn't result in injury.

In Mt Eden, where Oliveira worked, there were 131 in the year to November 2021.

1News spoke to an anonymous Corrections staffer who described a working culture where little consideration was given to safety.

They said the attack on Oliveira should never have happened.

" I believe he was probably corralled into making that phone call [unsupervised with the prisoner]. 'You'll be right, he's a good quiet prisoner, no issues.'"

They added staff feel unable to question their seniors when it comes to any concerns within their units.

"Staff are leaving in droves… we are all given procedures and policies to follow and a lot of staff don't do it.

"And if you bring it to the attention of their superiors you are a nark, but if you don't someone is going to get hurt."

The fear is if nothing changes, it will see more like Oliveira injured, unable to return or worse, with inmates also at risk of getting hurt if anything goes wrong.

Corrections' response

In a statement Corrections' northern acting regional commissioner Tayla Yandall said the pairing of Corrections staff is not policy, but they are encouraged to work in pairs.

"All staff are verbally advised in relation to their own safety in looking after each other, ensuring everyone is safe every day."

She added the department does not underestimate the effect an assault can have on its staff.

"Assaults on our staff are unacceptable. The reality is the threat of violence is something we cannot eliminate entirely, but we are committed to doing everything possible to minimise this risk and provide the safest environment possible for staff and prisoners."

She outlined a number of safety initiatives the department was putting in place to regularly review any assaults that happened, and to look at what improvements could be made.

In the case of Oliveira, Yandall said she believes senior staff gave him the "support, space and time to return to work" and says the department will continue to offer him support in his rehabilitation.

But Oliveira feels not enough has changed. He'd hoped to return to work with a plan signed off by his medical team, but felt pressured into giving Corrections a timeline for his recovery.

"That's my dream job, that's what I applied for, that's what I want to do, but they said all the time, 'No, no, no [to my return to work plan].'"

He eventually chose to take medical retirement, but felt he had little choice.

"I came to the point where I said I can't because it's not safe."

The decision to retire has come with a financial cost too. With the loss of his income, he's had to downgrade his home from an apartment in the central city to a single room in a shared Mt Roskill flat.

His future now a big question, as his physical and emotional recovery becomes his priority.