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Corrections fail to declare code red as prisoners destroy day room, light fire in cell

Mt Eden prison

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Mt Eden prison
Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Two prisoners at Mt Eden Corrections Facility were already rioting when another lit a fire in his cell, it’s now been revealed.

RNZ earlier reported a man started a small fire inside his prison cell on Sunday evening, triggering fire crew attendance. It’s now been revealed staff were already responding to two other prisoners who were destroying a recreation room in a different unit, at the same time.

Corrections Association vice president Paul Dennehy said the men were put in the room while staff searched their cell for tattoo equipment and weapons.

“They proceeded to smash up a ping-pong table, and try and smash their way through glass,” he said.

“There was a real concern that these two were going smash their way and try and get into the guardroom and take control of the unit. So whilst other staff were getting the riot gear, i.e. the protective equipment, shields, etc., other staff were literally the other side of a door withdrawing pepper spray just in case these two managed to break through.”

No one was injured, Dennehy said, but the stand-off went on for about three hours.

“The department won’t like it being called a riot, but effectively these two were smashing everything up with a view to smashing their way through to another part of the unit.”

Corrections had failed to adequately ensure staff safety by not declaring a Code Red, he said.

“A Code Red is when there is a disturbance and literally every prisoner has to be locked down and accounted for, and staff will probably have to report to a central point to deal with whatever the situation is, i.e. these two trying to smash their way out of an area.

“It seems that one manager thought another manager who was responding had called it already, but they hadn’t. Staff, it would seem, were urging the manager to call a Code Red, but they didn’t. I’ve no idea why. Certainly in my experience as a Corrections officer that would effectively be the first thing you’re doing because you want all of your manpower in a place where they can deal with whatever the situation is.”

Instead, staff whose shifts were ending went home because they did not know what was happening, Dennehy said.

“The upside was that these two, after three or so hours, did give up and staff managed to escort them to a secure area, but if they hadn’t and other prisoners had become involved then the staff you would’ve hoped to call on as a reserve had gone home because the management had failed in their duty of care.”

At the same time, staff were also attending a fire in a cell on the ground level. They extinguished the fire and moved the cell’s occupant into the intervention and support unit.

The two incidents were “another prime example” of the nationwide staffing crisis, Dennehy said.

“The department will not like this being publicised because it shows failings on how they’re managing the prison situation.”

Prison staff who were involved in the two incidents returned to work the next day and carried on as usual, he said.

“They feel this is just a continuation of the department’s failure to adequately look after them and ensure their own wellbeing and safety.”

Corrections said there was no riot at Mt Eden Corrections Facility over the weekend. The department acknowledged a Code Red should have been declared according to its own procedures, but said declaring one would not have had any impact.

Acting Regional Commissioner Lynette Cave said two prisoners damaged a window to the day room, before going inside and damaging furniture. They then activated the sprinkler and turned on taps to damage the carpet.

“There were no other prisoners or staff inside the activities room or day room with the two perpetrators, and no risk to the wider security of the prison,” Cave said.

“Due to the two prisoners being contained to the area, as well as the potential for the perpetrators to use parts of the damaged items as improvised weapons, staff did not immediately intervene and a request was made for Advanced Control and Restraint teams to attend the site.”

Six nearby prisoners were moved to a secure location – all other inmates were already in their cells for the night, she said. Both perpetrators surrendered and were relocated without any use of force.

“A Code Red was not formally called, but this did not impact the response as all prisoners on site were secured. However, I will be reminding all staff of our processes for responding to incidents.”

The incident was referred to the police and and Corrections would also review what happened, Cave said.

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