A statement from Chief Custodial Officer Neil Beales:

Corrections acknowledges the release of the Ombudsman’s reports into Arohata and Christchurch Women’s prisons.

The two reports resulted from targeted inspections in September and November 2021 when both prisons were being managed under the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, that were designed to ensure the health and safety of prisoners, staff and the public.

It is pleasing to note that the Ombudsman acknowledged that Corrections staff were managing a significantly complex situation but were doing so with genuine care and attention for the welfare of people in prison.

Inspections are welcome and independent oversight helps to ensure that people in prison are treated in a way that reflects their needs and supports them to make changes to their lives and stop committing crime.

Our frontline staff work in some of the most difficult and challenging environments in New Zealand, with complex people. Over 75 percent of the prison population have convictions for violence in their offending histories.

I have sought assurance in relation to the incident of a spit hood being used on a young person as described in the report. The person involved has a significant history of violence being used against prison staff, and also people in the community including banking and social services staff. This includes evidence of spitting at, biting and kicking people. While I appreciate that at a surface level, the use of a spit hood may appear to be inappropriate, I am satisfied that it was necessary and proportionate to the risk posed to staff in the circumstances.

Spit hoods are only used as a last resort and we have strict criteria for their use. Across our 18 prisons, where there are currently 8,737 people in custody, they have been used between 2 and 16 times per year each year since 2010/11.

We have an obligation to manage the safety of people in prison, and our staff, including protecting them from communicable diseases which can be prevalent in the prison population.

We also have legislative requirements to ensure the health and safety of our staff, and need to ensure that they are safe from the risks posed by bodily fluids, including blood, mucous and spit – a risk which was heightened in a COVID-19 environment, during which time these inspections were completed.

We are required to balance these obligations to keep our staff safe while preventing harm and trauma to the people we are managing. While we did not accept the Ombudsman’s recommendation, we did develop new procedures and guidance for Health Services staff on the use of restraints on vulnerable people, including disabled people. We routinely review our policies and are informed by the view of many internal and stakeholder groups including our tactical options committee, Risk and Assurance Advisory Committee and our Wellness and Wellbeing Insights Advisory Committee. We are also establishing a disability advisory group, which will include external representation from people with lived experience.

Through regular prison inspections the Ombudsman makes many recommendations in relation to our facilities and practices every year. The vast majority provide us with invaluable feedback to act on and clear areas of focus – with many changes made as a result.

However, others are more challenging and sometimes span multiple years where work remains ongoing to address the recommendation. For example, in these reports, the need to upgrade some of our ageing facilities and the need to protect prisoner privacy through CCTV pixilation.

Balancing our obligations, challenges and competing priorities against the time and resources available means we must make difficult choices about where to focus our efforts.

As a result of these inspections at Arohata and Christchurch Women’s Prison, ten recommendations were made by the Ombudsman for each prison and all were accepted by Corrections, with the exception of one. Work was either underway to address many of the recommendations prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, or were in the process of being addressed.

Common from both inspections was a need to improve our reporting of incidents where force is used; ensuring the privacy of prisoners, especially when residing in the Intervention and Support Unit (ISU) or Separates unit; and the quality of some accommodation in both prisons.

Privacy of prisoners is a common theme from the Ombudsman’s reports and Corrections is aware of the need to protect the privacy of people while balancing the need to keep them safe from harm. Corrections staff work with some of New Zealand’s most complex and troubled people and ensuring they are kept safe is our number one priority.

Throughout 2021 and 2022, members of the Chief Custodial Officer’s team undertook both national and international research into best practice undertaken by agencies within the justice sector. In December 2022, the National Commissioner approved a trial of surveillance systems that pixilated CCTV footage in ablution areas to enhance prisoner dignity and privacy.

Following a successful trial at Rimutaka Prison, approval was granted to implement pixilation of approximately 475 CCTV cameras across 14 of our prison sites, including at Arohata and CWP. Work has commenced on configuration of our CCTV system at these sites.

Since these inspections, new body worn cameras have also been rolled out throughout the prison network with better battery life and storage capacity. All material held on these cameras is downloaded onto a central system each day. Staff have been reminded of their obligations in ensuring all incidents requiring the use of force are properly recorded, and checks are now part of a monthly assurance process being trialled through the Women’s Prison Network Improvement Programme.

The Ombudsman identified some units at both Arohata and CWP as unsuitable for housing prisoners, this included the Separates Unit and ISU at Arohata, and the Selwyn unit at CWP.

Work had already begun on improving these areas prior to the onset of COVID-19 and they were being considered as part of Corrections’ long-term network configuration plan. The re-development of the ISU at Arohata is part of a larger project encompassing five ISUs to create more therapeutic environments for prisoners experiencing mental distress and requiting mental health support. Work to define modern, fit for purpose environments is underway as part of our national infrastructure planning process.

Background on the use of spit hoods

The Corrections Act 2004 and Corrections Regulations 2005 approve and authorise the use of spit hoods and we have very detailed polices and safeguards in place to ensure the use of spit hoods is proportionate to risk.

All Corrections Officers must be trained in the use of a spit hood and associated policy as part of Tactical Options training, and they must undergo refresher training in the use of the spit hood and associated policy at least once a year.

When a person in prison is spitting, or has a known history of spitting, staff can place a spit hood on the person to protect themselves when physically or mechanically restraining them. A spit hood reduces the risk of spreading pathogens by placing a see-through, breathable hood over a person’s face. It can protect staff from a range of serious infectious diseases.  After a spitting assault, staff are tested for infectious diseases such as COVID-19, Hepatitis B and C and HIV.

The impact that assaults have on our staff and the worry it creates for their families and colleagues cannot be downplayed. The reality is the threat of assault is something we cannot eliminate entirely, but we do everything we can to provide the safest working environment possible.

All Corrections Officers must be trained in the use of a spit hood and associated policy as part of Tactical Options training, and they must undergo refresher training in the use of the spit hood and associated policy at least once a year.

Spit hoods must not be used for any disciplinary reasons, and are only used in a manner that minimises discomfort and harm to the prisoner. The use of pepper spray is not permitted when a person is wearing a spit hood, and if pepper spray has been used against a prisoner, then the use of a spit hood is not permitted.

The use of a spit hood must be approved by the Prison Director or their delegate. However, in circumstances that require immediate action, a Corrections Officer may use a spit hood without prior approval from the Prison Director. Staff are required to report the use of a spit hood following the incident.

A spit hood must be removed once a prisoner has been safely relocated. In no circumstances is a prisoner to be left physically unsupervised when placed in a spit hood. If a prisoner needs to be transported by vehicle after being placed in a spit hood, they are asked to provide an assurance they will not continue to spit, and the spit hood is then removed. If the prisoner does not agree to cease spitting or continues to spit after giving an assurance they would not, the spit hood remains in place and a staff member must physically remain with them during the transportation.

Number of times a spit hood has been used each financial year

Financial year
Number of incidents