Sacked prison counsellor says she sometimes worked alone with up to 30 male inmates.

An addiction counsellor who was dismissed for an alleged inappropriate relationship with a prison inmate says her case has exposed unsafe understaffing at the prison unit where she worked.

Diane Robinson, a 56-year-old widow, was fired on October 8 from a drug treatment unit run by Care NZ at Spring Hill Prison near Te Kauwhata.

She said she was targeted because of repeated complaints about short-staffing, which she claims sometimes required her to lead groups of up to 30 male prisoners alone.

Two of the unit's three other counsellors have also resigned.


So have Care NZ's chief executive Kathryn Leafe, its Hamilton-based national manager (northern), Denise Giles, and its Wellington clinical manager, David Comiskey.

The upheaval follows the dismissal of another Care NZ counsellor in Hamilton who was blamed when a client committed suicide. She took a claim for unfair dismissal and won a substantial settlement last month.

Mrs Robinson's dismissal letter, signed by Ms Giles, alleged that Mrs Robinson "crossed professional boundaries" in her relationship with a Tongan male prisoner who was one of two prisoners trained as "mentors" for the latest intake of 30 men in the Spring Hill unit.

The letter said Mrs Robinson was alone with the prisoner for 31 seconds on September 14, and that a search of the prisoner's cell turned up a photo of Mrs Robinson's family and a note saying "I love you" in Tongan.

Mrs Robinson said her relationship with the prisoner was a "therapeutic" one between counsellor and client.

She said she had a copy of the photo in her office when she was suspended on September 15 and might have thrown it in a bin. The office was cleaned by prisoners and one of them might have given the photo to the Tongan mentor.

She said she had written "I love you" and other phrases in Tongan as part of a group exercise for Tongan Language Week two weeks earlier.

She said the unit's full staffing of 4.5 full-time counsellors was achieved for only a few weeks in her two years there, and a counsellor who left in April had still not been replaced by September.

In July, she complained directly to Ms Leafe, the chief executive, going over the heads of her immediate managers Ms Giles and Ed Kitchin.

"That's where all this started," she said.

Public Service Association organiser Amy Ross said the culture in the unit was "clinically toxic".

Care NZ chairman Michael Bird said: "I fully admit that there are problems within the staffing of our organisation." But he denied Mrs Robinson was targeted for complaining.

Corrections Department programmes director Ben Clark said he was "confident that staffing levels are sufficient to support programmes delivered by Care NZ".