The latest figures show that there were 13,635 adult inmates being held in NSW correctional facilities last December. This is a population at an increased risk of catching COVID-19 if there’s an outbreak in one of these centres that are known for their chronic overcrowding.
It’s elderly inmates and the frail who are most at risk of having their lives cut short if this highly contagious virus enters into one of these enclosed environments. And this is a serious concern, as over recent decades, the NSW prisoner population has been aging.
A 2017 NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) report found that an increasing amount of older offenders are being sentenced to terms of imprisonment, and the largest proportion of them were being detained over nonviolent offences relating to drugs and traffic.
The humane way
Corrective Services NSW commissioner Peter Severin told a Legal Affairs Committee meeting on corrections in early March that his department has had pandemic plans for correctional facilities in place for a number of years.
The commissioner added that at the time state prisons had already started to prevent visitors that had been overseas during the two weeks prior from entering the centres. And he said that if there was an escalation in matters, isolation measures and hygiene procedures would be enforced.
As a committee member NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge was present at the meeting. And he’s since come out advising that an additional measure should be in place for elderly inmates who’d be most at risk if the virus does break out on the inside.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to the Greens justice spokesperson about what sort of measures corrections already has in place, his proposal for elderly inmates that don’t pose any threat, as well as what he believes the government should be doing about immigration detainees.
Firstly, on 4 March, Corrective Services NSW commissioner Peter Severin said in relation to the coronavirus that his department has pandemic plans in place.
David, in your understanding, what sort of plans do authorities have for inmates during a situation like this. And how adequate do you think they are?
Those plans include additional lockdown periods and limiting the mixing of inmates, especially during mealtimes and time out of cells. And they include detailed notifications from Corrective Services officers if they have potentially been exposed to COVID-19.
They also include a dramatic reduction in visitation rights, and visitation from outsiders, once the pandemic has been announced.
However, what they don’t address is continuing overcrowding in prisons, especially cells that are described as double-ups and triple-ups.
This means cells designed for one, being occupied by two inmates, as well as cells designed for two, being occupied by three inmates.
Nor do they deal with the fact that we have an increasing aging and frail prison population. And many of those offenders are in custody for nonviolent offences.
You’ve proposed an additional measure to what the department has in place. What’s that? And why would you say it’s necessary?
The key additional measure we’ve proposed is providing for noncustodial alternatives for inmates who are nonviolent offenders and are either frail or elderly.
In other words, those inmates who are at particular risk if the pandemic breaks out in a prison.
That would not only assist the general population by reducing overcrowding. It would also provide significant additional protection for those especially at-risk inmates.
And it would do so in a way that we won’t prejudice public safety, because it would only be limited to nonviolent offenders.
You’ve also mentioned there have been issues at prison facilities overseas in relation to COVID-19. What’s been happening over there?
We’ve seen reports of a significant COVID-19 outbreak in a Chinese prison. A prison officer failed to disclose a history of contact with the virus, and then it spread throughout the prison, causing the infection to rush through that facility.
There have also been riots in Italy, where inmates were not properly and effectively informed about regime changes, including the complete cessation of visitation rights.
And obviously, if a prison descends into a riot, any plans that were otherwise in place to address a pandemic become ineffectual.
There is a concern that especially with some of the older prisons in NSW that unless we get ahead of this, there is a very real likelihood of the virus pandemic getting into our prison system.
There’s also the issue of immigration detainees – both onshore and offshore. In the case of these people, what do you think the government should be doing about them?
When it comes to people who are in immigration detention and are being held there because they’re claiming refugee status, there is a strong moral – if not legal case – for those detainees to be immediately released into the community, so they’re not held in facilities, where they have an increased risk of being exposed to this virus.
We need to be stepping beyond the usual political law and order-border control debates and ensure that we exercise our duty of care over the people that we’ve decided to remove their liberty from.
And lastly, David, if the authorities don’t act promptly and with an adequate response, what are your concerns could happen in these closed environments and to the people within them?
Because NSW prisons have a mix of overcrowding and an increasingly aged and frail population, they are at an elevated risk from this pandemic.
The obvious concern – given the mortality rates especially among older people who acquire this virus, is we will see prisoners die – because the government is so committed to the aggressive law and order agenda.
We are in a pandemic. And we do need to be looking at essential public health measures.
This is not only about protecting the health of inmates, because if we have a serious outbreak in a prison, it may spill out into the broader community.
Of course, prison officers and other workers inevitably filter between our prisons and the general population.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.