The Human Rights Commission has written to the Department of Corrections raising significant concerns around face-to-face visits not being allowed for thousands of prisoners across the country.
Speaking exclusively to 1News, Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt said the issue also engages with international human rights treaties.
“There’s no question that these are human rights issues,” he said.
“Many prisoners are being cut off from their families and communities and in many cases this is having a grave toll on mental health.”
Since August 2021 prisons nationwide have restricted in-person visits. While 10 have now re-opened, a further eight remain closed, affecting around half the prison population.
Corrections has cited safety concerns due to a “critical” shortage of staff which has been exacerbated by Covid-19.
“I acknowledge that the Department of Corrections is in a really difficult situation but these are human rights issues they need to be recognised as human rights issues,” Hunt said.
Families are calling for an end to restrictions.
Auckland woman Shay Carter has two children with her partner who has been on remand at Mt Eden Prison since November last year.
Carter told 1News not being able to visit face-to-face has had a particular impact on their two-year-old son.
“My son picks up my phone and cries for his dad, he asks to talk to his dad, he wakes up in the middle of the night calling out for his dad.”
It’s also been tough for Carter who is cares for the couple’s six-month-old baby who was born two months premature.
“It's been really tough with my son being born prem and my dad passing away I got post-natal depression,” she said.
Staffing shortages have also been blamed for the closure of Wellington’s Arohata Prison impacting 51 prisoners, including 42 who are being made to relocate to Auckland and Christchurch.
It puts further strain on visiting issues for those women who will now be further away from their families.
Amanda Hill is representing the Arohata prisoners and argues the women are “the sacrificial lamb” so that some staff can be shifted to other prisons.
“That means that in-person visits with their kids, with their partners, with their families, with their moko are virtually impossible.”
Hill says it is a quick and dirty solution.
“Covid has become the reason for everything. Staffing was a problem in our prisons prior to Covid and corrections hasn't done enough to retain its staff, it's turnover is massive.”
After months of trying, Shay Carter and her children were finally able to have a video call with her partner.