Corrections defends safety record after guard's death

Department of Corrections bosses say staff safety is paramount following criticisms made in the wake of the death of prison officer Jason Palmer.

Mr Palmer, 33, died in Middlemore Hospital after being punched by an inmate at Springhill Prison at Hampton Downs, about 65km south of Auckland.

Police said the inmate had been charged with assault and further charges were expected to be laid.

Mr Palmer had been a prison officer since November last year. He was born in South Carolina and had lived in New Zealand for the past eight years. He was married with two children aged five and two.

Department of Corrections chief executive Barry Matthews said it appeared Mr Palmer was punched shortly after he and two other prison guards opened the inmate's cell.

He fell back and hit his head on the floor as the other two guards restrained the prisoner.

Mr Matthews said although there had not yet been an autopsy, it appeared a combination of the punch and the striking of his head on the floor caused Mr Palmer's fatal injuries.

The attack prompted calls from the Corrections Association demanding armour and weapons. Association president Beven Hanlon said police dealt with the same people but were much better protected, with equipment including dogs, stab-proof vests and Tasers.

But Mr Matthews said he believed the department took the security of its staff very seriously but there was always a risk given that the prisons were full of violent people.

"We've had a staff safety programme to actually improve safety. We've increased the equipment, we've put a lot of effort into training," he said at the prison today.

"But at the end of it there's always been that potential risk that somebody just impulsively attacks an officer."

Mr Matthews said there was nothing to indicate that what the officers did was anything other than proper procedure.

Corrections Minister Judith Collins said it was the saddest day in the department's history as she was unaware of any other prison guards having died on duty.

She said she did not wish to comment on criticisms of the general safety of the staff made today by the Corrections Association while investigations were under way.

The inmate will appear in Hamilton District Court tomorrow.

Detective Inspector Lance Burdett, of Waikato CIB, said a post-mortem examination would be held in Auckland tomorrow.

Mr Palmer's death had been reported to the Waikato Coroner.

Labour law and order spokesperson Clayton Cosgrove today extended his and the Labour Party's condolences to the family and friends of Mr Palmer.

"Corrections officers work with some of New Zealand's most violent criminals ensuring that these people are kept safely away from our communities. They do a necessary and often unpleasant job and they do it well," Mr Cosgrove said.

"In the coming weeks there will be many questions that need to be answered."

Mr Cosgrove said Ms Collins should engage "openly and honestly with the family, the public and corrections organisations to ensure that this incident is fully investigated".