As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens, few communities are more vulnerable to illness than prisoners. The reason for this is simple: prisons are crowded places by design, allowing transmissible diseases to spread fast. And thanks to Australia's modern penchant for zero-tolerance law enforcement, most prisons are very overcrowded, making distancing impossible as there aren’t enough single cell units to keep inmates segregated.
Such an outbreak could not only infect and kill hundreds of people in prison, but potentially spread to nearby communities as well. “Not only is this a threat to those within the prison, but prisons may also act as settings that amplify infections in the community,” explained Associate Professor Hassan Vally, a public health expert and epidemiologist at La Trobe University.
This is a problem that's been recognised globally. The World Health Organisation has been quick to warn that any efforts to control COVID-19 will fail unless strict measures and adequate testing is implemented in all places of detention.
As one prisoner from Victoria’s Barwon told VICE, through an intermediary, "Every bloke is in contact with at least five to 10 different blokes in their unit. How can we keep our distance behind bars? The screws are constantly in our faces. A lot of those blokes are already sick because it’s a fucking mission to see a doctor for anything.”
Recognising this problem, 370 criminal law experts and health advocates from across Australia last week signed an open letter urgently calling on the government to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in Australian prisons and youth detention centres. So far we haven't seen any such outbreaks in domestic prisons, but as things go from bad to worse in prisons from Italy to Cuba, we should be preparing for the same here.
The letter called on Australian governments “to follow the lead of jurisdictions such as Ireland, the United States, Iran and the United Kingdom, where authorities have either released prisoners or flagged it as a possibility in response to the pandemic.”
Yet the same day, following the National Cabinet meeting, it was announced that all family visits to prisons across Australia would be cancelled. “This decision has not been made lightly and responds to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation and state and federal health measures,” read the press release. But beyond the decision to cancel family visitations, there has been no further announcements.
With a lack of further information from staff, and an indefinite ban on visits to the prison, tensions have begun flaring up between inmates and prison officers. The following day, Saturday 21st of March, gangland hitman Steve Asling and another inmate—previously involved in riots at the Metropolitan Remand Centre—climbed on top of their maximum security prison unit in Barwon to protest.
Another inmate from the prison told VICE, through an intermediary, that “[Corrections] want to look like they’re doing something from the outside, but they’re doing fuck all for us in here… Just locking us up for longer and not telling us what’s going on with our families.”
As the Victorian parliament delays any practical action, the New South Wales parliament has passed emergency legislation allowing the release of some prisoners. On the 24th of March, the Corrections Commissioner was given new powers to authorise the release of low-risk inmates on a date that is earlier than their non-parole sentence. And this is not a radical move. The US, UK, Ireland, Argentina and Iran are among the growing number of countries releasing low-risk inmates to avoid exacerbating the pandemic.
While unveiling these laws in NSW, Attorney General Mark Speakman explained that the “extraordinary measures are only to be used to respond to the threat of COVID-19, and would allow the Commissioner to prioritise vulnerable offenders and others who pose a low risk to the community for consideration for conditional release.”
However, in Victoria, the Andrews government refuses to release some of the state’s 8100 inmates from Victoria's overcrowded prisons—even as the risk of a coronavirus outbreak threatens the community at large.
A Department of Justice spokeswoman told VICE: "When it comes to managing the health and wellbeing of prisoners we take our advice from the experts — the Chief Health Officer, Justice Health and Corrections Victoria. Corrections Victoria has established processes for preventing and managing communicable diseases in custody, including isolation protocols."
A statement on the Corrections Victoria website currently states: “Corrections has increased phone access for prisoners where possible and appropriate, and are also encouraging them to write letters. They have also vowed to introduce alternative communication measures and are currently trialling video calls to ensure that prisoners maintain face-to-face contact with their loved ones."
But Sarah, whose partner is currently incarcerated in a Victorian prison, claims nothing has been done. “No, no extra phone time. None. [Prisoners] are not locked down, there’s no social distancing. Nothing has changed except the ban on visits.”
In a phone call with VICE, she explained: “my partner and I have a four-year-old daughter. Our child loves seeing her father and spending time playing with him on our weekly visits. She does not talk to him on the phone as she doesn't like talking on the phone. So this is going to impact their relationship in a major way.
“My partner is a very positive person,” said Sarah. "He is quite concerned for my and our child's safety and quite saddened that he cannot be with us especially at this time. We do not know how long we will be unable to see each other. He is due home in four months, he will have served five years at this stage. But due to all of this, parole may not be granted anytime soon, so we do not know how much longer he will have to serve.”
On social media, Sarah has been sharing a petition calling on the release of at-risk prisoners with 12 months or less of their sentence left. “The men look forward to seeing their kids, partners and family. Without these connections they are going to start behaving differently for sure," she said. "If you have a headache you have to wait days to see a doctor just to get a Panadol. Just because they are in prison it does not mean they can’t be treated like humans.”
This situation is a ticking time bomb that will ripple across the country.
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