Reports condemning the health care given two patients in separate prisons have only just touched on what is really happening in the country's jails, a lawyer says.
The reports released yesterday by a deputy health and disability commissioner found the Corrections Department breached patient rights in two cases in 2012 and 2013.
At Auckland Prison, a 30-year-old inmate suffered needless pain for nearly two months after a tooth extraction in mid-2013. In the second case, poor nursing care at Spring Hill Corrections Facility in Waikato meant an inmate endured strong pain for four months before prison doctors were told he had cancer that had spread. The inmate later died.
Lawyer Kelly Ellis, who has spent years advocating for prisoners' rights, said the lack of health care for some of her clients, including one man at Waikeria Prison, was appalling.
"I've had clients who literally have rotted in jail, to the extent where they had to even come to court with a portable electric vacuum device to suction puss out of the back of this paralysed man's backside while he was going through the court proceedings," she said.
"He used to complain about lying for 14, 16 hours in his own excrement. He was calling for help, unable to turn over and unable to give his bedsores a bit of relief, so it's well known that standards of care are very poor in prisons and have been for a long time."
Another man asked a prison's staff if he could see a specialist for a head injury after he was given two black eyes, but nothing happened, she said.
Ms Ellis said it was time prisoners were treated like humans.
"Look if we've got dogs on death row we don't expect them to be tortured or neglected. Surely we can apply the same standard for human beings, such as prisoners."
She said there should be a new watchdog to look at prisoners' treatment, and an independent inspector able to go into prisons without having to give notice.
Kim Workman from the organisation Rethinking Crime and Punishment said New Zealand should follow the World Health Organisation's recommendation and have health services in prisons run by an independent organisation.
"This is a time ... to take some brave action and that depends on the [Corrections] Minister ... the Minister and Cabinet deciding that our system is out of control and we need to do something about it."
Mr Workman, who headed the Prison Service from 1989 to 1993, said it was difficult to imagine the cases highlighted in the two reports were isolated ones. "These are systemic issues which are indicative of very poor health management."
Prime Minister John Key said it was too soon to say whether the cases investigated by the Deputy Health and Disability Commissioner indicated a wider issue.
"It's always dangerous taking a couple of examples and saying that that's the standard everywhere. We'd need to have a look at that and understand that."
Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga said he had been assured prisoners were receiving medical care that is up to standard.
Mr Lotu-Iiga said there had clearly been failures in the past which needed to be addressed.
"I've sought reassurances from the chief executive and from the [Corrections] Department that adequate care for our prisoners is paramount."