COVID–19: Prisoner rights activists say isolation policy must end

Prisoner rights activists are calling for prisoners to be treated humanely. Photo: Pixabay

About 7000 prisoners in Queensland have been placed in extreme isolation, ostensibly to manage the COVID–19 outbreak. But prisoner rights activists and lawyers say the impact of such measures is counterproductive, both in the short- and long-term.

Instead, they are urging governments to follow other countries and quickly reduce the number of people in prison. 

The National Network of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls (NNIFIWG) called on state governments on August 26 to immediately release all women and children locked in prisons across the country.

“We are hearing that people are being prevented from using the phones to call home; it’s been months since mothers have held their children; there has been attempted suicides and an increase in self harm.”

The NNIFIWG reported that, just in the past month, three people had died from suicide in Western Australian prisons.

“It is an outrage that we aren’t hearing a whisper, let alone a roar, about the human rights violations of women and kids inside,” said Vicki Roach, a NNIFIWG spokesperson.

The NNIFIWG is calling for the extensive lockdowns of women and children to end, as well as visiting, programs and services to be restarted. While these services are not operational, the only other option is to immediately release all children and women in prisons.

It said there are other ways of dealing with the confirmed COVID-19 cases in children and adult prisons across the country.

The cancellation of family visits and women and children being placed into lockdown — solitary confinement — leads to “permanent and negative impacts”.

The Queensland government has suspended visits to 6 prisons following a cluster of COVID-19 cases believed to have been spread from a worker.

NNIFIWG said the negative impacts of solitary confinement are well recognised: they include paranoia, anxiety, severe psychological suffering and permanent psychiatric disability. “These harmful effects begin in prison and continue following the end of the confinement”, NNIFIWG said.

Across the world, countries are releasing prisoners, another NNIFIWG spokesperson Tabitha Lean said. Unless people are released, there would be more deaths in custody.

“Prisons must be an integral part of the public health response”, NNIFIWG spokesperson Debbie Kilroy said. “We do not have the luxury of time here, and we do not have the luxury of being able to just take small steps and hope that this problem will go away.

“We need to urgently release people in order to protect them. And while we are doing that let us run the programs and let us support women and kids inside.”

Criminal justice spokesperson of the Australian Lawyers Alliance Greg Barns agreed.

“Placing thousands of prisoners into isolation is outrageous”, he said on August 27. “Prison lockdowns cannot be the solution to preventing a COVID-19 outbreak.

“Lockdown means solitary confinement and no rehabilitation programs or family visits; an increased risk of mental harm and it creates an increasingly intolerable and unstable environment within the prisons.”

He argued that prisoners placed in isolation must be given “remissions and discounts on sentence time served”.

Lockdowns and solitary confinement are inhumane and a form of torture that is contrary to Australia’s obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture, Barnes continued.

“The most effective way to avoid a serious outbreak of COVID-19 in our prison system is to drastically reduce the populations of prisons. Prisoners have the same rights to health and safety as everyone else.”

Health experts around the world are recommending the responsible release of prisoners to reduce over-crowding and enable some physical distancing to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks.

“This can be achieved by reducing unnecessary admissions and expediting prison release for selected, low risk offenders,” Barnes said. Such measures would not only protect inmates, they would also protect prison staff and the broader community from the impact of a COVID-19 outbreak in a prison.

The NNIFIWG has also outlined long-term measures to address isolation, including expanding access to video calls, free calls and free outgoing mail from all prisons. It also said that access to programs, meaningful employment, and psychological care and education are critical.