Auckland Prison is getting too old to manage maximum security prisoners, Corrections says after a spate of "gutless and unprovoked" attacks on its officers.
About 30 Corrections officers at the prison called in sick on Sunday following the fifth assault on a staff member in two weeks, says Corrections Association president Alan Whitley.
Auckland Prison at Paremoremo is New Zealand's only maximum security facility, and is more than 50 years old, says Corrections regional commissioner Jeanette Burns.
The ageing prison "does not provide an optimal environment for managing maximum security prisoners".
"A new $300 million replacement facility is due to open at the prison mid-year, and will provide state of the art, modern and safe accommodation and mental health treatment for maximum security prisoners."
Burns was on site at the prison yesterday and said it continues to operate safely and securely "despite a higher than usual number of staff calling in sick this weekend".
The prison has had to call in staff from other areas to manage the lack of officers.
The staff called in sick following a fortnight of increased "organised violence toward staff", orchestrated by gang members at the prison.
"There have been five staff assaulted by prisoners in the last week alone. The assaults have typically involved punches to the head or upper body. Staff injuries include bruising and abrasions."
Welfare support is being provided to all staff, and managers are regularly checking on wellbeing.
The ringleaders of the gang activity have been segregated to disrupt their influence, and they will be held to account, Burns said.
"The prisoners responsible for the assaults on staff have also been segregated, and we are working with police to ensure that they are held to account through criminal prosecution.
"These assaults are unacceptable. Our staff come to work every day to keep New Zealanders safe from the most violent and volatile prisoners that we manage. They do an exceptional and brave job in often very challenging circumstances. The assaults on them have been gutless and unprovoked."
Whitley said the prison had a plan in place to help staff safely deal with prisoners, but the association was not happy with it.
The association's direction to staff was that if the plan had not improved by Sunday morning, they were to attend work but refuse to unlock the prisoners until the safety plan was changed.
Staff had been told they could refuse to carry out unsafe acts - unlocking the prisoners - under the Health and Safety Act.
Instead, officers didn't show up for work at all.
But this morning Whitley's understanding was that all but one officer had gone to work, and a safer plan had been put in place, which included putting handcuffs on prisoners while moving them.
"Before we were moving prisoners without handcuffs on. Remember these are maximum security prisoners, New Zealand's worst prisoners.
"We should never get to the point of having to invoke the Health and Safety Act . . . we're working in one of the most dangerous environments you can."
He said the existing prison had "done its dash".
"It's old, it's laborious," he said.
Opening prisoner cells involved an "arrangement of levers and turning wheels" and was a slow, clunky process, as was the route prisoners were taken when being moved.
The new prison was to have automated doors and a better layout, and would be "a little bit less labour-intensive".
More than 75 per cent of the prison population have convictions for violence in their offending histories, and more than 90 per cent have had a lifetime diagnosis of a mental health or substance use disorder, Burns said.
Gang members are also disproportionately identified as responsible for assaults in prison.
"We have invested significantly in training and tools to keep our people safe. This includes tactical skills, such as de-escalation, through to the introduction of stab resistant body armour and the expanded use of pepper spray," Burns said.
Auckland Prison has been operating with stability over the past 12 months.
"Last year we established the Safer Auckland Prison Plan as part of our commitment to improving practice and providing ongoing support and training to staff to reduce violent incidents and staff and prisoner injuries.
"Through this plan we lifted custodial practice to respond to key risks to staff and prisoner safety and delivered additional training to staff to ensure best practice is being followed."