Managing COVID-19 at Corrections

Last updated: 06 May 2022

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. Since March 2020 we have put in place extensive plans to manage the risk presented by COVID-19, and we have continuously refined these plans in order to do everything we can to keep everyone safe.

All new receptions into custody are transported in a secure vehicle and 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 develops symptoms they are isolated. We follow Ministry of  Health advice about contact tracing to determine who else a person may have had close contact with and who may require isolation and COVID-19 testing.  All newly received prisoners are tested for COVID-19 on arrival to prison and again on days 5 and 10.

Our frontline staff have worked incredibly hard in some very challenging circumstances to keep people safe, and we could not be prouder of the way that they have responded to the unprecedented challenge that the pandemic has presented. Because of the measures we put in place and the hard work of our staff, we were able to keep COVID-19 out of the mainstream prison population until mid-February this year, after the highly transmissible Omicron variant started circulating in the community.

What is occurring in prisons currently mirrors the increasingly widespread transmission of COVID-19 in our communities, where many workplaces and institutions are seeing an increase in case numbers amongst staff, residents, customers, and students. As we are also seeing, the majority of active COVID-19 cases in prison are confined to prisons in the wider Auckland and Northern Waikato region.

We are constantly reviewing our COVID-19 settings in prisons to ensure they reflect the level of risk for each site.

Our duty of care

We have a duty of care to the men and women we manage in prisons, and to our staff. Everything we have put in place to manage the threat of COVID-19 has been based on prioritising their safety and wellbeing. People in prison are some of the most susceptible to COVID-19 with many who are vulnerable due to existing or previously untreated health conditions. In addition, we have seen the devastating impact of COVID-19 in prison environments internationally due to the ease with which transmission occurs in close residential environments, with thousands of prisoners becoming unwell.

Before mid-February, we managed over 100 cases of COVID-19 in prisons with no known transmission between prisoners or staff. As in the wider community, we are now seeing increasing numbers of positive cases in prison as the country manages the Omicron surge. However, we are committed to slowing the spread of COVID-19 within prisons to protect the vulnerable people in our care.

We continue to have a strong focus on delivering key health services to people in prison while we work to contain the spread of COVID-19. This includes the on-going provision of essential healthcare services (including mental health support), through a range of health care practitioners from our prison-based nursing and health care teams and our contracted medical and Allied health workforce. We are triaging all non-urgent health requests to ensure that these activities are undertaken as soon as it is safe and practicable to do so.

Business continuity

It is also important that we avoid a widespread outbreak amongst our custodial staff in order to maintain the numbers required to deliver our essential work, and to keep the public safe. We are a 24/7 operation and the safe and secure operation of all our prisons is paramount. We have extensive business continuity plans in place across the country to meet the required staffing levels across range of different situations, including health emergencies, natural disasters, and the ongoing response to COVID-19. However, our custodial staff are skilled workers who have undergone specialist training, and we need to do everything we can to prevent a significant number having to isolate at any one time, therefore reducing the number of available staff to run our prisons.

Prisoner wellbeing

Many people in prison are vulnerable due to their existing health conditions. In line with limits on visitors in other settings that house vulnerable people, such as hospitals and aged care facilities, at Stage 2 and 3, face-to-face visits are suspended for personal visitors to reduce the risk of virus transmission to both staff and people in prison. While visits are suspended, we are providing every prisoner with a $5 phone card each week, and virtual visits are available where possible. We have also put in place additional phone and AVL facilities across our prisons in response to COVID-19.

In accordance with Section 69 of the Corrections Act 2004, every prisoner has a number of minimum entitlements, including to take at least one hour of physical exercise on a daily basis. This is a minimum entitlement and people are provided with more time outside their cells wherever possible. Section 69 further provides that a prisoner’s minimum entitlements may be denied if there is an emergency in the prison, the security of the prison is threatened or if the health or safety of any person is threatened.

In situations where a significant number of prisoners are being managed in quarantine because they have tested positive for COVID-19, or have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19, it is very difficult to provide unlock time without creating an opportunity for the virus to spread to staff or other prisoners, and it is not possible to safely facilitate this for every prisoner every day. However, we are continuing to prioritise providing prisoners being managed in quarantine with their minimum entitlements wherever possible. When people in prison test positive for COVID-19 or are deemed household contacts of a case, they are segregated for the purpose of medical oversight under Section 60 of the Corrections Act 2004. This is done for their own wellbeing, in order to assess and ensure the prisoner’s health. Prisoners are regularly seen by a registered health professional while they are segregated under Section 60.

We do not underestimate the serious impact these restrictions are having on the wellbeing of people in prison. Our staff are extremely experienced in managing a dynamic range of issues and are working to ensure all prisoners are regularly provided with updated information on COVID-19 and ongoing support.

We are particularly mindful of the need to support the mental wellbeing of people in prison at this time. The delivery of mental health and addiction services is considered an essential activity at all Stages in our COVID-19 framework. These services continue to be provided in all prisons through a mixture of in-person and virtual delivery via AVL link.

We know it is critically important for people in prison to keep in touch with their friends and whānau, and to have sufficient time outside their cells. Reinstating visits and greater unlock hours is a priority for us, and we will do this as soon as it is possible for us to do so safely. At this stage, we need to keep strict restrictions in place due to the vulnerability of the prison population, and the risk to safety that a widespread outbreak amongst prison-based staff could present. However, we are continuously reviewing our settings and are actively planning for how we will be able to ease restrictions in the future.

Corrections COVID-19 stages

On Friday 3 December, in response to the introduction of the COVID-19 Protection Framework (traffic lights), Corrections implemented a three-stage models for our custodial environments and in the community. Prisons operate at one of three COVID-19 Stages, which reflects the level of risk for each site. The Stage each prison is operating at does not necessarily reflect the local traffic light level because community transmission is the primary consideration when assessing the risk to prisons, whereas the Government takes a much broader range of factors into account when making decisions on traffic light settings.

Find out more about which Stage each prison is at.

Visiting prison and COVID-19

Read more about how we're managing our different environments.

In prisons

Since the early days of the pandemic, we have responded to the risk of COVID-19 entering prisons by adopting different operating models at each of the four Alert Levels. This approach successfully enabled us to contain positive cases inside our quarantine units and prevent any transmission of the virus within our prisons.

Building on the strength of our response, we are maintaining our strategy to keep COVID-19 out of our prisons. We have seen the devastating impact of COVID-19 in prisons overseas and we will continue to protect the high proportion of prisoners who experience health vulnerabilities, including Māori. We will continue to encourage and support people in prison to be vaccinated at our sites.

On Friday 3 December, Corrections implemented a three-stage model for custodial environments to support our approach. Prisons operate at one of three COVID-19 Stages, which reflects the level of risk for each site, regardless of the traffic light setting.

This model retains many of the key features of the approach we have taken in prisons throughout our response to the pandemic.

One of the key features of our three Stage model is that they can each be applied at any traffic light setting. This is because community transmission is the primary consideration when assessing the risk to prisons, whereas the Government takes a much broader range of factors into account when making decisions on traffic light settings.

The Stages support our frontline prison staff to balance keeping COVID-19 out of prisons, giving the greatest level of access to whānau, health, and reintegration and rehabilitation services as possible. The model supports greater availability and access to core and essential health services, including mental health and addiction services, across all Stages. COVID-19 vaccination will continue to be offered to prisoners across all Stages.

Prison Directors are able to make decisions, supported by a decision-making framework, on whether specific activities which pose a higher level of risk can continue at different Stages. PPE, good hygiene practices, and staff staying home when sick will continue to play an important role in our response to COVID-19 under the new model.

Stage 3

Stage 3 reflects a very high level of community transmission and is our most restrictive setting. Stage 3 may be used at any traffic light setting if positive cases in a prison are no longer confined to quarantine units. Stage 3 reflects the potential need for sites to operate with reduced staffing levels.

This means:

  • No Face-to-face visits for personal, legal, and specified visitors. Virtual / phone options may also be available if possible
  • Strict entry controls – only essential persons allowed on-site at any time
  • 4-point PPE required across the site. PPE use for prisoners enforced.
  • Internal staff contact tracing systems will be maintained
  • Construction contractors can enter for critical maintenance only
  • Health screening for all people entering prison, including the use of thermal cameras will be maintained
  • Shielding (separate bubbles) of vulnerable prisoners to be implemented.
  • Essential health, mental health, and addictions services continue as usual with some services delivered virtually.
  • NZ Parole Board hearings undertaken virtually via Corrections laptops / teleconferencing with Board members at home.
  • All face-to-face group programmes, including rehabilitation and reintegration activities, and prisoner forums pause unless they are assessed as safe to proceed.
  • Remote delivery of Case Management only.
  • Release to Work and Guided Releases paused.
  • Health assessments / screenings continue to be completed prior to release.
  • Information and support provided to prisoners being released around the traffic light system, and to access My Vaccine Pass if vaccinated.

Stage 2

Stage 2 reflects a medium to high level of community transmission and places restrictions on certain activities. Stage 2 is likely to be used for regions in Orange or Red settings (where there is high community transmission and/or a lower level of prisoner vaccination) or areas subject to localised protections under the traffic light system. Any positive cases in the prison will be confined to our quarantine units.

This means:

  • No Face-to-face visits for personal and legal visitors. Virtual / phone options will be available where possible as the primary option.
  • PPE and good hygiene practices will continue to be maintained, including the use of 4-point PPE for higher risk areas / activities of the prison (Receiving Office, separation, quarantine, prisoner movements). PPE encouraged but not enforced for prisoners.
  • PPE continues to be required for all staff.
  • Internal staff contact tracing systems will be maintained
  • Construction contractors can enter for critical maintenance only
  • Health screening for all people entering prison, including the use of thermal cameras will be maintained
  • Shielding (separate bubbles) of vulnerable prisoners to be implemented
  • All health, mental health, and addictions services continue as usual
  • NZ Parole Board hearings undertaken via virtual meetings, with all in-person meetings suspended.
  • Face-to-face individual rehabilitation and reintegration can occur where assessed as safe.
  • Remote delivery of Case Management in most circumstances
  • Health assessments / screenings continue to be completed prior to release.
  • Information and support provided to prisoners being released around the traffic light system, and to access My Vaccine Pass if vaccinated.

Stage 1

Stage 1 is our least restrictive stage. Stage 1 reflects a low level of community transmission, and any positive cases in the prison will be confined to quarantine units. Stage 1 is likely to be used for prisons in Green or Orange settings of the traffic light system.

This means:

  • Face-to-face visits continue in prisons for personal, legal, specified, and statutory visitors. Virtual / phone options will also be available where possible.
  • PPE and good hygiene practices will continue to be maintained, including the use of 4-point PPE for higher risk areas / activities of the prison (Receiving Office, separation, quarantine, prisoner movements). PPE will continue to be available for prisoners.
  • Staff and visitors need to wear a face mask.
  • Internal contact tracing systems will be maintained
  • No restrictions on maintenance / construction contractor entry
  • Health screening for all people entering prison, including the use of thermal cameras will be maintained
  • NZ Parole Board members able to access prison sites to hold hearings virtually from a different location to prisoner. A mixture of virtual hearings from the NZPB Offices as well as face-to-face Boards in prison where NZPB criteria are met.
  • Face-to-face rehabilitation and integration programmes continue with PPE, hygiene, and distancing controls
  • All health, mental health, and addictions services continue as usual
  • Case Management continues as usual
  • Health assessments / screenings continue to be completed prior to release.
  • Information and support provided to prisoners being released around the traffic light system, and to access My Vaccine Pass if vaccinated.

In the community

Community Corrections provides an essential service to people serving community-based sentences and orders at over a hundred sites nationwide. With the introduction of the traffic light system we can expect a higher level of community transmission to occur, increasing the level of risk to our staff and the people we manage. Under the Alert Level system, Corrections managed this risk effectively by undertaking community activities remotely at higher Alert Levels.

A new model has been established for Community Corrections that builds on the success of this strategy. From 3 December, a three-stage model has been implemented for Community Corrections Sites.

Our approach recognises that people serving community-based sentences and orders cannot be required to be vaccinated or to use My Vaccine Pass to access essential Community Corrections services.

As this increases the risk of exposure to COVID-19 for our staff, our new approach supports greater flexibility at the local level in determining the necessary measures to keep our people safe, no matter which traffic light setting is in place.

Under our new Community Corrections Protection Stage model, our districts and sites operate at one of three COVID-19 Protection Stages which reflect the traffic light setting of the region but also the level of risk presented more locally.

Protection Stage 1

  • Home visits continue to occur, with PPE.
  • Report-ins continue with masks.
  • Community work can operate without distancing when masks are worn in the vans. Participants will be asked to show confirmation of their vaccination status, with those unable to show confirmation taken to projects which do not require vaccination.

Protection Stage 2

  • Home visits can occur when assessed as necessary, with PPE.
  • Distancing is required in the office with masks used during report-ins.
  • Remote reporting when appropriate.
  • Community work can operate with lower numbers and with distancing. Participants will be asked to show confirmation of their vaccination status, with those unable to show confirmation taken to projects which do not require vaccination.

Protection Stage 3

  • The vast majority of work is done remotely
  • Home visits can continue when there is a need to (high-risk or not contactable) with appropriate PPE
  • Community work is not in operation
  • Reduced contact with low risk individuals
  • Credit for community work may be used when it cannot operate

Determining our Protection Stages

Our locally-based District Managers are supported to determine which Protection Stage their District or sites will operate at by using a decision matrix tool with the support of a decision panel which includes union representation and Health & Safety representatives. The following points are considered when determining the appropriate Protection Stage for Districts or individual sites, regardless of the traffic light setting:

  • The number of active COVID-19 cases currently in the District, and how spread out they are
  • The number of people subject to community-based sentences or orders who have COVID-19 and which service areas are most affected
  • The proximity of Locations of Interest that pose a high risk for close contacts and which service areas are most affected
  • Whether the District has a high population of people at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, and whether high-risk populations report to particular service centres
  • The vaccination rate throughout the District and whether some service areas have rates lower than 90%
  • Results of wastewater test results and whether there is any indication of unidentified transmission within the District or service area.