Thousands of prisoners denied visits due to Corrections' Covid policy

Maiki Sherman
Source: 1News

As Covid-19 restrictions continue to ease nationwide, including no longer needing to wear a mask in most places, thousands of families are still being forced apart at many of the country's prisons.

One law expert says it could have legal implications.

Face-to-face visits at prisons were stopped during the August lockdown last year and during an outbreak of Covid cases in January. But while restrictions were eventually relaxed for the public, a ban on face-to-face visits remains for almost two thirds of prisoners.

June figures show a total prison population of 7728 across 18 prisons. Of that figure 5073 prisoners at 10 sites are still not allowed visitors.

Lawyer Nigel Hampton KC believes the issue raises concerns over a breach of human rights.

“I think it is. It's so fundamental,” he said.

“The severity of the restrictions that are being imposed on face-to-face contact is I think a breach of the rights on either side, both prisoner and family.”

Leigh Marsh, Deputy National Commissioner for Corrections, says he disagrees.

“I don’t think it’s a human rights issue, we’re not denying connection between prisoners and their family.”

Marsh says staff are doing their best to provide alternative options such as phone and video calling.

“It's very difficult for both prisoners and our staff that are wanting to make that happen. But it's the reality of what we're dealing with at the moment,” he said.

But families argue it’s unfair.

New Plymouth woman, Friday Doughty, lost her baby girl in July when six months pregnant.

She wasn't able to grieve with her partner who was in Auckland Prison at the time which hasn't allowed visitors in over a year.

“It's just a loss that we couldn't experience together or have anything to do with each other, it's actually really horrible. I don't wish anyone to go through this,” she said.

With no temporary release or video calling, the cremation service for baby "Poppy" was tough.

“Basically, it was just pushed aside to a phone call - a ten minute phone call -so I had to have him on speaker phone at the funeral and so he just had to sit there in his cell obviously and think about how that funeral would go down.”

Covid-19 restrictions are now largely non-existent after the Government removed the traffic light system this week. It also dropped vaccine mandate requirements for prison officers back in July.

Asked if it were time Corrections moved on from the non-visiting policy, Leigh Marsh said it was already underway.

“We're doing that right now and that's what we're seeing at the prisons we can do where we have the staff to do that safely,” he said.

Those staffing issues are what lay at the heart of the current challenge.

1News can reveal there are currently around 1,600 vacancies across the Department of Corrections - including 533 prison officers.

But Marsh denies families are paying the price for major staffing shortages.

“I disagree with that. I think that we are doing a large amount of new initiatives to try and connect prisoners with their families,” he said.

However, the department still cannot provide prisoners and families with a timeline on when they can expect to resume visits at all prisons.

“We could do it in the past, why can't we do it now? Get on with it,” Nigel Hampton KC said.

As for Friday Doughty, her partner is now at another prison where visits have resumed.

And while she has since been able to visit him over the last few weeks, she still believes other families deserve the same opportunity.

“It's just unfair, it's purely unfair.”