Covid 19 coronavirus Delta outbreak: Behind bars in Spring Hill prison with the virus

There is rising anxiety inside Spring Hill prison where low inmate vaccination rates and complaints over access to basic pandemic protection measures are emerging after a Corrections officer returned a positive Covid-19 test.

Worry inside the prison is driven by talk among inmates in the absence of regular and detailed information from Corrections, creating an increased reliance on word-of-mouth news passed between cells and units.

That quest for information came with inmates on tenterhooks over test results for the 123 men kept in the unit where the Covid-19 positive officer worked.

“If they come back positive, we’re going to play up. None of us want to die here.”

The Ministry of Health last night gave possible cause of an easing of tension with a statement that said: “This is not a confirmed case and it remains under investigation.”

A spokeswoman said further test results were due Thursday afternoon.

Corrections has described the case as “positive” and put its Covid-19 response plan into action with a unit of 120 men locked down and the rest of the prison operating on high alert. Efforts included trying to track down 14 men released in the fortnight prior to the prison officer’s positive test to ask they isolate and get tested.

Behind bars, there’s a simmering discontent inside Spring Hill prison as time in cells has increased and access to services has decreased. It appeared centred on a perceived lack of information and claims of poor access to basic infection control measures.

One inmate told the Herald prisoners were “ripping the arms off T-shirts” to fashion masks. He said it was done because it was difficult to access masks – a statement Corrections has rejected.

The inmate also said prisoners were not allowed to have hand sanitiser because of concerns it would be abused.

“Most of the prisoners haven’t been vaccinated,” he said, with the rollout of the Pfizer vaccine only beginning at Spring Hill prison on August 9.

The Herald has also found a huge gulf between vaccination rates of staff at Spring Hill prison and the number of inmates vaccinated.

It appeared about 5 per cent of Spring Hill prison inmates had received two jabs of the Pfizer vaccine and about 45 per cent had a single dose.

Nationally, 14 per cent of inmates were fully vaccinated with significant differences between prisons. At Hawke’s Bay prison, only nine of 514 prisoners were fully vaccinated.

Corrections confirmed the vaccination rollout across prisons was halted on Ministry of Health advice when stocks of the vaccine ran low across the country.

In comparison, staff at the prison were able to access the vaccine earlier as essential workers. The Corrections Association of New Zealand reported 58 per cent of those working at Spring Hill prison having had two jabs and 79 per cent a single dose.

Victoria University criminologist Dr Liam Martin said Covid-19 spread overseas saw prisons emerge as significant vectors for the virus.

“It’s been a disaster in the United States,” said Martin, referencing a Lancet study showing in the first six months of the pandemic the 15 largest clusters of Covid-19 cases were in prisons and jails.

He said prisons were places in which large groups of people lived and worked in close proximity with staff, volunteers and professional services coming and going on a regular basis.

“When there’s an outbreak in a prison, it affects everyone. Prisons become a hub. The epicentre of the pandemic in the US is the prisons. It seems like one big blind spot of the government’s approach.”

Martin said the difficulties experienced in public around social distancing and hygiene were “magnified” in prison. “They are very difficult places to live and work in.”

He said the claim prisoners were making their own masks sounded credible and lined up with a systemic denial of basics exposed in inspection reports.

Corrections would not allow anyone to be interviewed but sent a statement from Spring Hill prison director Scott Walker. In it, he said Corrections and Waikato public health had identified everyone who had left the particular unit where the Covid-positive officer worked over the period of concern.

“Each person is being contacted and encouraged to take a test and contact Healthline if they have any symptoms.”

He said the inmates where the staff member worked had been quarantined and tested for Covid-19. While inmates say three were symptomatic, Walker said none showed symptoms.

Efforts were underway to find the 14 men who had passed through the unit into the community in the fortnight before the staff member tested positive. They were not considered “close contacts” but were being advised to isolate and get tested. Corrections did not respond to questions over how many had been tracked down.

Walker said at alert level 3 and level 4 staff were required to wear masks while on prison grounds and those interacting with prisoners did so in full PPE gear. At level 4, prisoners also had to wear masks when outside cells. Other precautions include reducing time outside cells and closing the gym.

He said the unit at which the infected guard worked was in quarantine meaning all staff were in masks, gloves, gowns and goggles when dealing with prisoners, who were also told to wear PPE.

Walker said prisoners were offered masks, although provided no information explaining how or when. He said the last check on Monday showed there were 11,800 masks on site.

He also said water-based hand sanitiser was “available on site”, but did not respond to questions on whether prison officers held it or if inmates were allowed it in their cells.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis also refused an interview. In a statement, he said there were daily vaccine clinics for inmates and staff. He said “the uptake at many prisons has been very good”.

Davis said prisoners “cannot be forced into a vaccination” but would be encouraged and educated by Corrections about the benefits it offered.

Corrections Association president Alan Whitley said staff had been braced for a positive test. It was a relief to have eight of the 23 staff linked to the positive case return negative results.

“They’re nervous. They don’t want to contract it and take it home to their family bubble. Equally, they don’t want to take it into the prison.”

Whitley said the reduced prison population – down to around 8200 from a 10,800 peak four years ago – had helped manage inmates during a time when demands on staff increased. It also helped ease pressure at a time when 238 staff across the workforce were in isolation.

Chief prisons inspector Janis Adair said staff were closely involved in Corrections’ Covid response to ensure inmates received fair, safe and secure treatment.

The Office of the Ombudsman was contacted for comment but did not respond.

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