Please attribute to Scott Walker, Prison Director:
Last night (Monday 30 August) I was advised that a staff member from Spring Hill Corrections Facility (SHCF) had tested positive for COVID-19. The staff member lives in Auckland, is fully vaccinated and has not displayed any symptoms.
We took immediate action on Monday night to identify and contact 23 staff who had contact with the person while they were at work. All have been advised to isolate and get tested in line with advice from the public health unit. These staff will not come back to work until they have returned negative tests and been cleared by the Public Health team.
All 123 men in the unit where the staff member worked have also been segregated for medical oversight in line with section 60 of the Corrections Act and they are being tested for COVID-19 by our Health Services staff on-site today. Anyone who has been recently transferred out of the unit is being managed in the same way. We will continue to work with public health officials and take their advice to ensure the safety and wellbeing of these men, and our staff. A small number of men that were in the unit and have been released are being contacted and advised to isolate and get tested and will be followed up by the public health unit.
We are well prepared for this situation. Since March 2020 we have put in place extensive plans to manage any risk to our staff or the people we manage, and we have continued to refine these plans in order to do everything we can to keep our staff and the people we manage safe from COVID-19. This includes robust infection prevention and control plans at all Alert Levels, with detailed record keeping for both staff and visitors to our sites to enable fast and thorough contact tracing.
We also restrict access to our sites at Alert Level 4, with only essential frontline staff permitted to enter a prison. Spring Hill Corrections Facility is also one of the sites nationwide that have already implemented our proximity detection technology. This is delivered through smart card holders, to assist with contact tracing within prison sites across the country for staff, contractors and visitors.
The staff member worked at the prison on Saturday 28 August. That evening they were notified that they were linked to a recent location of interest. They immediately self-isolated and were tested on Sunday. That test returned a positive result on Monday evening.
I would like to acknowledge the staff member for doing all the right things when they were first notified of their connection to a location of interest and ensuring we were notified of the positive test result as soon as possible. I would also like to thank our staff for their professionalism and willingness to continue to carry out their essential work.
The unit guardroom and shared spaces have been deep cleaned this morning, and this will continue regularly. The unit is now operating as a quarantine unit which means all staff are wearing enhanced PPE, including masks, gloves, gowns and goggles when interacting with prisoners. Prisoners have also been instructed to wear PPE. Since New Zealand moved to Alert Level 4, there has been a requirement for staff to wear masks at all times inside the prison, and for prisoners to wear masks any time they are outside of their cell, with regular hand washing and sanitising taking place.
While the unit is being treated as a quarantine unit, we will continue to prioritise our obligation under the Corrections Act 2004 to provide these men with their minimum entitlements wherever possible, noting these may be denied in limited specific circumstances, including if the health or safety of any person is threatened.
We will be providing information to all of the men in the unit so they fully understand the controls we are putting in place for their health and safety. They will continue to have access to Health Services staff who will assist them with any questions or concerns. Staff welfare support has also been put in place for staff.
Regardless of our infection control measures, we understand the emotional and mental toll this may have on prisoners. We are working through plans to ensure they can safely continue to have access to phones to speak with their whanau and friends. We will also be looking to provide any mental health support that is required.
As at 27 August, 406 staff at SHCF had received their first COVID-19 vaccination, with 288 staff fully vaccinated. These numbers include only vaccinations of staff given at prison sites, and do not include any staff who have been vaccinated in the community by their DHB (this information is not collected by Corrections). The total number of staff at SHCF is 427.
As at 27 August, 404 prisoners at SHCF had received their first COVID-19 vaccination, with 45 prisoners fully vaccinated. Of the 123 men currently in the unit, 46 have received their first COVID-19 vaccination.
Corrections’ response to latest COVID-19 outbreak
As an organisation, our top priority is safety – of the public, our staff, visitors to our sites and the people we are managing in prisons and the community. Corrections has a number of controls in place to minimise risks relating to the transmission of COVID-19, including health screening for every person who enters a prison. The secure and controlled nature of the prison environment means we are able to quickly isolate prisoners as required and restrict their movements.
All new receptions into custody are transported in a secure vehicle and both prisoners and staff are required to wear PPE. Our prisoner escort vehicles have enhanced cleaning procedures in place to prevent any potential for the virus to spread between movements. If any prisoner developed symptoms they would also be isolated, and we would follow the advice of the Ministry of Health in terms of contact tracing to determine who else they may have had close contact with and who may require isolation and COVID-19 testing as recommended by health officials.
We have reintroduced our policy of separating people coming into custody for their first 14 days from those who have been in prison for longer. On arrival at site, all newly received prisoners remain separate from other prisoners, with physical distancing maintained, and are health screened for any indications of COVID-19. These newly received prisoners are wearing PPE as well as our Receiving Office staff during this process as an added precaution to keep staff and other prisoners safe.
If our health screening determines that a newly received prisoner has symptoms or potential symptoms of COVID-19, we take immediate steps to further isolate them as a precaution and to notify the Ministry of Health so all appropriate steps can be undertaken both at our sites and in the community. A prisoner will undergo a COVID-19 test should it be deemed a requirement following the screening process.
All Prison staff are required to wear masks at all times while on site, and staff interacting with prisoners are wearing Personal Protective Equipment to prevent transmission. We are also using Thermal Cameras on entry to prison to assist us with identifying anyone who is symptomatic. Prisoners are also being provided with PPE.
At our prison sites operating at Alert Level 4, we are limiting physical interaction between people, including temporarily suspending in-person visits to prisoners. Prisoners are being provided with phonecards to enable them to stay in touch with friends and family, and video visits may also be available. Statutory visits (e.g., the independent Corrections Inspectorate and the Office of the Ombudsman) continue to be facilitated. Legal visits and New Zealand Parole Board hearings are being facilitated by phone and AVL. Any visitors to our sites are also required to wear PPE.
Guided and temporary release of prisoners (for example, reintegration activities outside prison), temporary removal, release to work activities, face-to-face rehabilitation programmes and non-essential prison industries are also temporarily suspended.
Information on proximity detection technology in prisons
Our prison sites have large numbers of people interacting in close proximity, often across many units and buildings throughout the course of a day. Due to the significant risk that COVID-19 presents in the prison environment, it’s critical that we can carry out contact tracing quickly and reliably.
Cellphones are a contraband item in prisons, which means our staff, contractors and visitors aren’t able to access technology solutions such as the NZ COVID Tracer app (with QR scanning and bluetooth functionality). From March 2020 we used paper-based records which are then entered into a spreadsheet. This was a slow, manual process with significant room for error.
Instead, Corrections has implemented smart card holders that detect close proximity interactions. In the event of a potential or positive COVID-19 case, the data collected and stored allows us to quickly identify all staff who have been in close proximity to that person.
The system works by recording interactions between the card holders themselves, stores information about close contacts who are also wearing them. Staff pick up a smart card holder when they enter the prison and return it when they leave.
Individuals don’t need to do anything or behave differently apart from wear a smart card holder that continuously monitors the presence of other smart card holders. The software collects the access ID of the individual wearing the smart card holder. No other personal data is collected. The technology does not collect any location / GPS data of the person wearing the smart card holder, and information gathered is used for the purposes of contact tracing only.
In total, approximately 6,000 units will be delivered for use across all 18 prison sites. It is expected the rollout will be completed by next month, with all sites using the new technology by October 2021.
Please note: prisoners are not included in the rollout of the proximity detection cards. Corrections already had a system in place that manages prisoner movements throughout sites prior to COVID-19. This system continues to be used.
As at 27 August 2021, 5,024 Corrections staff have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with 4,116 of these staff fully vaccinated. These numbers include only vaccinations of staff given at prison sites, and do not include any staff who have been vaccinated in the community by their DHB (this information is not collected by Corrections).
Corrections has followed Ministry of Health guidance throughout the roll-out of its vaccination programme and, as at 27 August 2021, 4,517 prisoners have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Of those, 1,122 prisoners are fully vaccinated. The prison population is dynamic, and changes daily due to arrests, releases and court decisions, therefore it is difficult to provide an accurate proportion – however today’s prison population is 8,198 people.
On June 11 Corrections was advised that a decision had been made by the Ministry of Health to slow the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine to certain groups, including people in prison. This decision was made in order to manage stocks of the vaccine in the lead up to new vaccine deliveries. As a result, Corrections paused the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine to prisoners at all sites from Monday 14 June.
Our prisoner vaccination programme resumed in late July, and we have been working to provide additional opportunities to be vaccinated as a priority to prisoners and prison-based staff and who have previously not taken up this opportunity.
While vaccinations are not compulsory, we have taken a proactive approach to encouraging people in prison to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and have provided them with information from the Ministry of Health.
We have and will continue to provide information about vaccine safety and effectiveness via conversations with health staff, through prisoner kiosks, Prison TV, posters, pamphlets and other materials. Information is also available in a range of languages.