COVID-19 would “spread like wildfire” in prisons say legal advocates

Contributor: Cindy Cameronne

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Overcrowding and social isolation leave prisoners vulnerable to COVID-19 but NSW Corrective Services has no plans to release prisoners on early parole.

The NSW Government passed laws in March enabling the Commissioner to release certain inmates on early parole to prevent an outbreak in correctional facilities but this power has not yet been used. Other countries such as the United States have released prisoners under similar legislation to mitigate risk.

Team leader at legal advocacy group Justice Action, Sheree Kuan, said conditions in prisons are so overcrowded that the virus would “spread like wildfire”.

Prisons and aged care are comparatively susceptible to the virus due to overcrowded conditions and certain health risks of the population, she said.

“The measures to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak in NSW prisons are insufficient. The provision only refers to those inmates who are eligible for parole but one third of Australian prisoners are on remand.”

Another issue prisoners face is that social isolation hits them harder than the general population where visits to correctional centres have been suspended and prisons generally have very limited resources in terms of communications such as video calls, she said.

“It may be pretty much completely severed from the rest of the world.”

Long Bay Photo: flickr.com/photos/publik15/3701832995/

There were riots at the Goulburn and Hunter Valley prisons in April protesting the lack of means of communication.

Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of Sydney, Garner Clancey, said the ageing population of inmates leaves prisons especially susceptible to the virus.

“Given their increased vulnerability, it would be a disaster if COVID-19 entered one of those prisons,” he said.

Juveniles were not included in the early parole legislation passed in March but can be released before the end of their sentence under s 241(c) of the Children (Detention Centres) Act 1987 (NSW).

This section allows juveniles to be supervised on their return to the community but has become used less frequently, said Clancey.

No juveniles have been released under this section during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Before releasing someone on early parole, the Commissioner must consider the risks to community safety, the effect on victims in the Victims Register, the protection of a victim of domestic violence, who the inmate is to live with, and the availability of accommodation.

Inmates serving sentences for murder, serious sex offences and terrorism offences cannot be released, as well as those serving life sentences or deemed to be serious offenders. Those who have committed federal offences also cannot be released.

Photo: pxfuel.com

NSW Attorney-General, Mark Speakman, called the powers “broad and extraordinary” but “necessary to respond to the grave risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and to control physical contact in places of detention”.

“The Government contemplates that if the power were used it would be in relation to lower risk or vulnerable inmates to be prioritised for potential release, such as older inmates nearing completion of their sentence,” he said.

Released inmates will be subject to standard parole conditions.

A spokesperson for the Department of Communities and Justice said NSW prisons are following expert health advice and adjusting their procedures to reduce infection risk.

“Detainees continue to have access to telephone calls and video conferencing options have been established for family contact.”

The early parole power can only be used to release an adult offender where the Commissioner is satisfied it is reasonably necessary because of the risk to public health or to the good order and security of correctional premises arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, they said.

“There are no present plans to exercise this power.”

Cindy Cameronne is a first year Master of Media Practice student at the University of Sydney and a Law and Arts degree graduate from the Australian National University. She has a particular interest in migration law and policy having worked two years in that industry.