Justice reform advocates are calling for the prison population to be urgently lowered to help stop the spread of Covid-19.

New Zealand prisons have separated certain groups of inmates, as well as suspended visitations and face-to-face group rehabilitation programmes in a bid to stop the virus reaching inside their walls.

But some say that it is only a matter of time despite the fact authorities have not announced any confirmed cases of Covid-19 within our prisons.

Sir Kim Workman, a justice reformist, said prisons were a "breeding ground for infectious disease" due to the close proximity of prisoners, many with poor health.

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"It is a population which is extremely susceptible to infectious disease and would be classified, I think under any criteria, as a vulnerable population.

"And you have got them all sitting next to one another. The potential for the spread of coronavirus is incredibly high."

The New Zealand prison population is about 10,000, nearly 4000 of whom are on remand.

Workman said two things would need to happen; one would be releasing anywhere between 1500 to 2000 prisoners to ensure they could manage a crisis.

The second was to take immediate measures to reduce the number being incarcerated, he said.

A particular issue in this country was the high number of remand prisoners in custody, he said.

Workman said simply stopping visitations and reducing services to prisoners was a strategy that "totally lacks compassion".

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The director of youth justice group JustSpeak, Tania Sawicki Mead, said releasing prisoners who were elderly, medically vulnerable or had little time left to serve was a powerful way to keep more people safe from Covid-19.

"We think this is the responsible thing to do in a public health crisis given that prisons are incapable of preventing the disease from spreading."

Sawicki Mead said it was hard to believe the prison environment could safely maintain needed physical distancing, especially when 34 per cent of the population was double-bunking.

The first priority should be considering the release of those over 70 and those with existing health conditions, she said.

New Zealand law does not allow sentences of death or torture, she said, yet there would be hundreds of vulnerable prisoners posing no or little risk to the community who would be at serious risk of dying from Covid-19.

Of all age groups, older people were shown to be the least likely to re-offend, she said.

"Purely from the public health perspective, this seems urgent and necessary."

She said she was also concerned about the mental health of prisoners due to increasing restrictions.

Corrections is currently managing inmates over 70 years old, or otherwise vulnerable due to an underlying health condition, separately.

Similarly, any newly received prisoners were kept separately from other prisoners for a period of 14 days, as far as practicable, according to Corrections.

"Corrections' chief executive does not hold the powers to grant early releases, and any decision to change these policy settings would be a matter for the Government to decide," National Commissioner Rachel Leota said.

She said her staff were extremely experienced in managing a dynamic range of issues on a daily basis which impact accommodation placements, including gang tension and the association of co-offenders.

"Prisoner placements, including anyone who requires isolation, can be managed across units within each prison site, as well as across the prison network as a whole."

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield today told reporters he had been working with his counterpart at Corrections for weeks on measures to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection getting into the prisons.

Bloomfield said prisons, like other institutional settings, were potentially high risk.

The Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield during his media update on the first day of the Covid-19 alert level 4 lockdown. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield during his media update on the first day of the Covid-19 alert level 4 lockdown. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Parole Board chairman Sir Ron Young said the board held no legal power to simply release prisoners due to Covid-19.

"Throughout this time, as always, the board must use its normal legal test to determine parole – that is, whether an offender poses an undue risk to the safety of the community," he said.

"Public safety remains the board's paramount consideration in every case."

Minister of Corrections Kelvin Davis earlier told the Herald he was regularly briefed by Corrections on the measures it was taking to mitigate the risks posed by Covid-19.

During the alert level 4 period, there would be a normal process for release, he said.

"Release planning will continue and Out of Gate support will still be in place.

"This is a dynamic situation and acting quickly now can potentially prevent the worst."

The Ministry of Justice declined to comment.

What precautions have been taken in our prisons?

Leota said they had robust plans in place to mitigate the risk of any infectious illness from spreading in prison and had been following advice from the Ministry of Health about Covid-19 since January.

"The secure and controlled nature of the prison environment means we are able to quickly isolate prisoners as required, restrict their movements, and identify people who would have been in contact them if required," she said.

"These measures were well practised last year during the measles outbreak."

Leota said there had been no confirmed cases of Covid-19 in any New Zealand prison.

"We are taking a deliberately cautious approach, and any time a prisoner has displayed any symptoms we have isolated them as a precaution and taken the advice of our Health Services staff and the Ministry of Health."

On Monday, Leota advised staff and prisoners that Corrections was suspending all private and volunteer visits, release to work activities and other non-essential movements in and out of prison sites.

An average of 85 minimum security prisoners take part in release to work activities every day.

"This was not a decision taken lightly, however people's health and safety has to be our top priority," she said.

"We know that this decision will be disappointing for prisoners, their families and friends. We are working hard to support people to maintain increased contact through telephone calls, letters and emails.

"This includes supplying all prisoners with a $5 phonecard each week, the addition of more phones in residential units, and increasing the use of inbound emails that can be printed and given to prisoners."

Prisoners and their visitors had been informed about why the decision was made.

Community work activities carried out by offenders in the community has also been suspended, as of yesterday 11,731 people were subject to community work sentences.

"Over the previous weeks we have asked our staff to take a deliberately cautious approach to their own wellbeing by staying at home if they are sick, advising us of any contact with other people with suspected or confirmed Covid-19 and letting us know of any recent international travel," Leota said.

"As a result, and like many organisations and businesses across the country, at any one time we have had a small number of staff self-isolating."

Leota said they were providing advice to staff in relation to the safe and correct use of personal protective equipment in relation to Covid-19.

In line with Ministry of Health guidance, hand sanitiser, gloves and masks were available for use by custodial staff if a prisoner presented as having suspected or confirmed Covid-19, she said.

"Staff working in receiving offices and in units used for accommodating prisoners during their first 14 days in prison will wear face masks and gloves when interacting with prisoners in these areas, and will be practising physical distancing."

* Additional reporting Isaac Davison

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website