Frustration grows as lawyers, whānau denied face-to-face prisoner visits

Maiki Sherman
Source: 1News

Lawyers are warning of significant legal implications with two-thirds of the country’s prisoners being denied face-to-face visits.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis has responded to criticism over the policy, which has been put down to Covid-19 and a major staffing shortage in the department.

“We want them to be able to visit their whānau but it has to be done when it is safe and we're not going to compromise safety ... so we can't have not enough staff to manage visits,” Davis said.

1News last week revealed there are currently 1600 job vacancies across Corrections, including more than 500 prison officers.

“Corrections is well aware of my expectations that we need to recruit, we need to look at the retention of corrections officers,” Davis said.

The Department of Corrections has always maintained that strong links to whānau and community are paramount when it comes to prisoner rehabilitation.

But the policy of no face-to-face visits has now been in place for around a year and is currently impacting close to 5000 prisoners.

READ MORE: Thousands of prisoners denied visits due to Corrections' Covid policy

It's not just families who are frustrated.

Lawyer Jo Wickliffe says there's a detrimental impact on a prisoner's preparation for trial.

“We can go overseas but we can't easily get into a prison,” she said.

“It affects us massively. You cannot build a relationship of trust and confidence with someone over the AVL link.”

AVL, or audio visual links, are one of the options available in place of face-to-face visits.

“We’ll book an AVL meeting, it just won’t happen. We can even book phone calls to our client and we don’t get that phone call. It’s the inconsistency that’s the problem,” Wickliffe said.

Davis admits the situation is challenging.

“It does make it difficult and Corrections is well aware of that,” he said.

There are also privacy concerns around sensitive client documents.

“We have to now send it through the email system at Corrections which means that that email is sitting there on someone's email account and that's a breach of client-solicitor privilege, that's a breach of our confidentiality duties,” Wickliffe said.

Incentives are being looked at to keep current prison officers in the job, while television advertisements will soon be launched to attract new ones.

But despite 500 applicants for corrections officer roles last month, all must first go through three months of training.

Families meanwhile are hope all prisons will be open for visits by Christmas.

“That'll be lovely but it's got to be done safely,” Davis said.