Neglected Bedding Crisis in NZ Prisons: Inadequate Hygiene & Health Risks, Urgent Action Needed for Prisoner Welfare

A pile of yellowed, mouldy, torn bedding sitting on a shelf in Waikeria prison.

This is the first in a series on conditions inside New Zealand’s prisons, written by members with lived experience. The second post about sleep disruption during night checks is here, and the third post about conditions in visiting rooms is here.

In the heart of Aotearoa New Zealand’s Correctional Facilities lies a silent crisis: the neglect of prisoner bedding. Ara Poutama Aotearoa | Department of Corrections, entrusted with the welfare of prisoners, is failing to provide adequate standards around the hygiene, quality or provision of bedding. The repercussions of this negligence are significant.

Bedding in prisons is often mouldy, rotten or in low supply. People currently or recently in prison have voiced concerns to PAPA about this, and it is an issue raised in many recent Ombudsman and Inspectorate reports. This is a particular issue in Rolleston, Waikeria, Spring Hill, Whanganui, Northland, Auckland Women’s and Christchurch Men’s prisons.

Specific issues with bedding include:

  • ripped, lumpy, stained or otherwise substandard mattresses and bedding; 
  • people having to wash their own bedding in their cells;
  • insufficient bedding provision;
  • staff in some units taking away bedding as a punishment;
  • people in some units relying on informal systems to acquire hygienic or quality bedding, such as having it passed onto them from people due to be released, or through contacts they have among people working in the laundry.

Information obtained under OIA shows that Ara Poutama Aotearoa is failing to address these issues by replacing bedding. For example, from 2020/21 to 2023/24 only 44 new mattresses at Rolleston Prison were purchased, despite the prison having 384 beds. Corrections have since sought to clarify that their policy is to replace bedding “only when needed”, which raises further concerns given the current state of bedding.

People in prison have told PAPA that they were instructed to request a replacement mattress if theirs was mouldy, rotten or otherwise unfit, but that these are often just swapped with another cell.

The repercussions of inadequate bedding are profound, with prisoners enduring back pain, discomfort, disrupted sleep patterns and health problems. These conditions not only diminish their quality of life but also impede their participation in rehabilitation programs and educational activities. Moreover, the discomfort and lack of hygiene exacerbates existing health conditions, further complicating medical appointments and treatments. People referred to medical staff are taking over 30 days to get a consultation.

The ripple effects extend to the strained prison healthcare system. The increase in medical consultations and treatments for back-related issues diverts resources from other critical health services, jeopardising the overall well-being of prisoners.

The implications spill beyond prison walls, posing risks to both prison staff and the public during escorted medical trips. Overburdened hospitals and clinics must accommodate prisoners, stretching already limited resources.

People Against Prisons Aotearoa are calling for urgent action. We recommend more frequent mattress and bedding replacements, better quality mattresses and betting, and better health monitoring.

It’s imperative for Ara Poutama Aotearoa to prioritise prisoner health over budget constraints. Swift action is needed to alleviate health and hygiene, and ensure humane treatment within correctional facilities.