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Government Approach To Covid In Prisons Not Enough, Endangers Vulnerable People - Advocacy Groups

Advocacy group People Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA) has today sent out a joint letter with JustSpeak and Amnesty International setting out steps to address what the group describes as failures and shortcomings in the Government approach to mitigating the risk posed by COVID-19 to people in prison.

The letter comes after a week that saw more than 60,000 new cases of the virus, as well as news of outbreaks of COVID-19 at a number of prisons around the country.

The Department of Corrections has put in place a three stage protection framework for prisons that involves escalating protection measures; including PPE use, placing prisoners and staff in bubbles, and limiting or prohibiting face-to-face activities such as visits, parole hearings, case management, education and rehabilitation programs, when these are deemed unsafe.

As of Friday 25th Feb, Corrections were managing 193 cases of COVID-19 in prisons, as well as 127 cases among staff.

The letter expresses concern over the unacceptably high risk to people in prison, particularly to Māori as well as to vulnerable individuals such as older people, pregnant people and people with pre-existing health conditions.

A PAPA spokesperson said, "We know from research and examples overseas that prisons are uniquely risky places when it comes to COVID-19. Prisons often have poor sanitation and ventilation, and people in prison have a higher prevalence of pre-existing health conditions with limited access to healthcare. Many of the recent inspections and Ombudsman's reports have raised concern over the exact issues in prisons here."

The letter highlights the urgency of this issue and criticises the approach taken by Corrections. It calls on the Government and others in the justice sector to take a number of steps to safely reduce prison populations and better protect incarcerated people.

"We've been contacted by people who have been kept effectively in solitary confinement for 48 hours as a result of COVID-19. Others are unable to access hot drinking water or the computers they need to file complaints. Many are feeling cut off from their family or whānau. The current approach from Corrections means prisoners have to sacrifice their rights to stay safe." PAPA's spokesperson explains.

"There's simply no safe way to manage COVID-19 in our prisons without reducing the prison population significantly."

The letter is addressed to the Chief Justice, Attorney General, Solicitor General and the Ministers for Corrections, Justice, Police and COVID-19 Response.

A link to the letter can be found here.

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