Judge calls situation 'real concern' as 'the prison simply hasn’t done its job'.
The turmoil at Serco's embattled Mt Eden prison is causing a backlog in the already overloaded justice system, with a frustrated judge yesterday criticising the prison for not doing its job.
The privately run prison has been in lockdown since Monday, with restrictions on the amount of time inmates can spend outside their cells, following the revelation of a spate of violent incidents.
Disgruntled lawyers say the lockdown is now holding up court cases because it has prevented them from talking to clients on remand.
In Auckland District Court yesterday, lawyer Jim Boyack said the lockdown had hindered his attempts to see one client and caused another client's sentencing to be delayed.
"It's chaos at the prison," he said.
"I've been trying to talk to another client all week who's desperate to talk to me and he's just not able to ... The prison is in lockdown, because of all this political 'hoo-ha' that's in the press."
A clearly frustrated Judge Nevin Dawson told the court the situation was a "real concern" and his court was being held up because "the prison simply hasn't done its job".
Even before the lockdown, lawyers have claimed access to clients at the Mt Eden facility could be difficult.
Whangarei barrister Kelly Ellis said on one occasion she drove from Northland to Mt Eden only to wait for an hour before being told there were not enough staff to bring her client in.
She said the situation had improved recently following many complaints from lawyers, "some of who have told courts that telepathy seems to be the best way to contact clients who were often inaccessible within the prison".
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said staff were "not aware of any complaints" about the situation, and referred inquiries to Corrections.
Meanwhile, lawyers are reporting a spike in inmates coming to court from Mt Eden Correctional Facility with black eyes and broken arms.
Reports of fight clubs, under-staffing, and inmates with drugs and homemade alcohol have surfaced in the last week, with shocking footage filmed on contraband cellphones uploaded online. It has sparked a multi-agency investigation.
An Auckland lawyer, who asked not to be named, said he had two clients with broken arms from fights in the "grossly under-staffed" prison, and his colleague was representing another man with a broken arm.
"I've never seen so many clients with broken arms coming to court with casts," the lawyer said.
The clients said their arms had been broken in fights, but the prisoners were reluctant to talk further.
"The lockdown is part of the problem - it's making them less than inclined to talk because they're scared that this is going to carry on for a lot longer."
Ms Ellis said lawyers were regularly asked by "black-eyed prisoners" to delay their cases so they could stay in Northland's Ngawha Prison instead of being sent back to Mt Eden. She said every lawyer she had spoken to confirmed the repeated complaints from clients about violence, adding: "Serco is the most dangerous prison from a prisoner's perspective. It's the prison I feel most worried about visiting, particularly now."
Corrections Association president Beven Hanlon said it was "hell on earth" inside the Mt Eden facility.
It was the most dangerous prison in the country with inmate injuries becoming "a lot more prevalent", he said.
"The fear and intimidation in that place is just outrageous, and all we're seeing is a result of it. The fact that we're seeing video footage just shows how rampant it is."
Corrections said it was up to Serco to answer specific complaints about the facility - but Serco did not respond about specific complaints about the facility in time for deadline, despite multiple attempts to reach a spokesman.
In a statement, Serco said the prison was in full lockdown, with access to the exercise yards "now more limited and strictly controlled", and extra searches of prisoners and cells being undertaken.