If you’re serving time in a New Zealand prison for a serious crime, pray – hard – no one else in the facility becomes infected by the deadly bird-flu virus because, if that happens, the prison is going to be sealed for six weeks, mass graves will be dug in the compound and the disease will be allowed to run its course.

Government planning documents, obtained by New Zealand’s Sunday Star-Times, reveal draconian contingency plans drawn up by the nation’s corrections department to deal with an avian-flu pandemic among its 7,500 prisoners.

In what Bevan Hanlon, president of Corrections Association, the prison officers’ union, called a “brainstorming” document, options for maintaining order among a population highly susceptable to contagious diseases are discussed.

Among the scenarios under consideration is a total sealing off of affected prisons – no one goes in or out – for six weeks as the disease runs its course. The survivors would bury the dead in mass graves dug within the prison compound. Low-security prisoners – those near the end of their sentences or those convicted of relatively minor crimes like drunk driving – would be freed, a proposal endorsed by the union.

A second option under consideration gives greater hope to prisoners by requiring staff and medical personnel to share their risk. In this case the prison would be isolated but medical staff would be allowed in and out to treat the outbreak. Prison officials and guards would be locked in with the inmates for the duration and no new prisoners would be accepted until the epidemic had passed.

“Once there was an outbreak in a prison it would be a matter of closing the doors and going from there,” Hanlon said. “They are saying six weeks and it would be all over, and after that they go in and clean up what is left, unfortunately.”

Using the 1918 flu epidemic as its baseline, the Health Ministry estimates up to 40% of New Zealanders could contact the aggressive H5N1 subtype virus that causes bird flu and up to 33,000 people could die. Prisoners, living in close proximity, are much more susceptible to contagious diseases.

“That’s what it is like when they get the ordinary flu – it travels quickly,” said Hanlon.

Hanlon’s first concern is his officers. He wants to be sure they are on any list of those guaranteed supplies of Tamiflu, the drug most widely stockpiled around the world to combat the feared pandemic.

U.S. officials sounded similar warnings yesterday with a warning to Americans to stockpile food, water and medicines in the event of a bird-flu pandemic. Health and Human Services issued a checklist that calls for individuals to plan for serious disruptions in transportation, schools, workplaces and grocery stores as infected workers and the “worried well” stay away from their jobs. Even utilities, HHS warns, could shut down.

As for New Zealand’s Hanlon, he says his officers would give whatever help they could in a crisis.

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