As of Thursday afternoon, two of Victoria’s prisons – Ravenhall and Fulham correctional centres – remained in lockdown, while COVID-19 precautionary measures had been lifted on another four state correctional facilities.
Six Victorian prisons were locked down on Tuesday, after a GEO prison officer, who regularly works at Melbourne’s Ravenhall gaol, tested positive for the deadly virus.
The guard had been in self-isolation since 16 July, after learning he’d been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case.
This is not the only time the virus has found its way into the Victorian corrections system, as since last Friday, two inmates have tested positive whilst being held in protective quarantine on their way into the Metropolitan Remand Centre.
And as the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb in Victoria, and indeed elsewhere in the country, calls to release at-risk prisoners during the pandemic are being raised once more, as up until now, Australian authorities have simply crossed their fingers and hoped for the best.
“We do not have the death penalty in any jurisdiction in this country, however the coronavirus is going to deliver a death sentence to people in our prisons and we must stop that as a matter of urgency,” Sisters Inside CEO Debbie Kilroy told Sydney Criminal Lawyers back in April.
And the situation in Melbourne suggests this matter has only grown more urgent.
According to Corrections Victoria, “all new prisoners are tested and required to spend 14-days in protective quarantine, regardless of coronavirus (COVID-19) risk”.
However, as the situation with the guard reveals, this is certainly not the case for staff who come and go on a daily basis.
As Kilroy put it, once the infection hits a prison, it “will spread like wildfire”. And with it rapidly making its way through a confined and overcrowded prison environment – with guards and other staff coming and going – it would only be a matter of time before the virus makes it back outside.
And it’s not as though the authorities were unaware of this danger. Right before NSW parliament closed for an extended COVID-19 break in late March, it passed laws to allow for the early release of certain prisoners close to parole as a pandemic measure.
However, those laws are now sitting on the books gathering dust. And instead of releasing prisoners from cramped conditions, NSW authorities have established a makeshift 33-bed hospital to deal with an outbreak amongst the 12,800-odd inmates, with many suffering compromised health.
Taking a cue from the worst
Australia OPCAT Network coordinator Steven Caruana pointed out in a tweet on Thursday that the top ten COVID-19 clusters in the United States – the country worst affected by the virus – are all outbreaks in correctional facilities.
“Six prisons in lockdown, two positive cases among prisoners, one positive case among staff,” Caruana wrote.
“What is the threshold the Victorian government is comfortable with before it considers early releases?”
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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.