By Guyon Espiner of RNZ
The amount of time New Zealand prisoners are being kept in their cells each day during the Covid-19 outbreak meets the international definition of solitary confinement, according to a prison reform group.
Four families have now come forward telling RNZ that inmates across the country are being confined to their cells for 23 or more hours a day.
But Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis said his department was doing its best to keep Covid-19 out of jails and prisoners should take the issue up with guards if they were being denied minimum entitlements.
Auckland woman Kate, who didn't want to use her real name for fear her partner would suffer repercussions, said her husband was struggling under the long lockdown hours in Hawke's Bay Regional Prison.
Kate said her husband had gone from spending about 12 hours a day in lockdown before the pandemic to now spending 24-hour periods without being let out of his cell.
"They can be in their cells anytime between 20 and sometimes 24 hours before being let out into the unit. So he's being locked up now from 11.35am until 12 o'clock tomorrow."
Kate said her husband was a minimum security prisoner serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence.
"He's finding it incredibly hard. When you're sitting in a cell by yourself and you're left with your thoughts, it can take a toll on you," she said. "He's also ADHD and although he's medicated it is really difficult for people with that diagnosis to be stuck within their own thoughts without having an outlet."
Emilie Rākete, one of the founders of People Against Prisons Aotearoa, said locking people up for this length of time met the definition of solitary confinement.
Under the so-called Mandela Rules, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, anything longer than 22 hours without meaningful human contact is considered solitary confinement and is only to be used as a last resort.
"This is a very serious and concerning move that Corrections is making here. It breaches the minimum standard that prisoners should expect to be able to have and it puts them in unsafe conditions."
Davis said the safety condition he was most focused on was stopping the virus getting into prisons. "If Covid gets into our prisons then we will have people complaining that we didn't do enough."
To manage physical distancing prisons are operating longer lockdown hours, he said. "Nobody's intentionally doing anything to be mean or to intentionally restrict the prisoners but it's just a sign of the times that we're in."
Under the Corrections Act all prisoners are entitled to at least one hour out of their cells for exercise although those rights can be suspended if the health or security of prisoners is under threat.
Davis said the Corrections Department assured him that no prison was locking the whole jail down for 23 hours a day.
But he concedes some prisoners may have been confined to their cells for 23 hours at a time - or even longer than that.
"I have heard of a case of a prisoner who says that they were locked up for more than 23 hours at a time and what we encourage is prisoners to talk to staff about their concerns," he said.
Rākete said it was completely unrealistic for prisoners to appeal to guards about their conditions and the minister should take responsibility for ensuring inmates were treated in a humane way, even in crisis.
Davis is now seeking assurances from his officials that prisoners' minimum entitlements under the law are being met.
"I will again talk to officials and say, what is going on? Is this actually the case?" he said.
The minister said he would also talk to Corrections about property not getting through during the pandemic after RNZ revealed Spring Hill prison refused permission for a woman to send basic clothes to her partner.
"There appears to have been a miscommunication there because I've been assured that Spring Hill in particular continues to receive and process property as normal," Davis said.
"These are things that I can and I will take up with officials. We're trying our very best to make sure that prisons operate normally in very trying conditions."
Kate said she hoped the minister could get answers because Corrections hadn't given even basic information to families about its emergency procedures.
"Nobody's actually contacted the families to provide us with any information as to what's going on or what the expectation is for us as families to maintain that contact with our partners or family members on the inside."
The Corrections Department said Covid tests for six prisoners at the Mt Eden and Hawke's Bay jails returned negative results. The prisons were free of the virus and it aimed to keep them that way.