Prisoner rights activists take aim at government negligence

Photo: Thalia Anthony

Family members of prisoners and prisoner rights advocates gathered outside the New South Wales Law Courts on October 20 to protest the government’s negligence in dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons.

The event was organised by Justice Action and heard from founder Brett Collins, prisoner rights activist Jacob Grech and Joanne Scriven, the mother of a prisoner and instigator of the support group Jailing Truths Exposed, which sheds light on the experiences of people in prisons. Prisoner rights activist Rachel Evans chaired the protest.

Speakers demanded the government immediately implement social distancing measures in prisons, offer vaccinations and computer tablet access to prisoners in their cells, implement early release programs for non-violent prisoners and guarantee exercise and air time in accordance with health regulations.

Twelve families have filed a class action in the Supreme Court in an effort to compel Corrective Services New South Wales (CSNSW) to enact the measures.

Scriven took aim at prison authorities’ mismanagement of the virus outbreak at Parklea Prison: “Corrective Services have had 18 months to plan for a COVID-19 outbreak,” she said. “It would appear, and has been reported, that their only plan was to lock [prisoners] away. Inmates are locked away [even] when testing negative for COVID-19 for six weeks. They received, on average, half an hour out of the cell a day. Some inmates don’t even get that.”

Scriven said that Parklea management had also failed to provide hygiene products and clean clothing to prisoners in lockdown, that medication was “not regularly distributed and often denied” and that many prisoners “felt there was no hope and that the only solution was death”.

Collins said the conditions inside prisons where two or three people live together “in the area of a bathroom” constituted “a death sentence” for some. “We know from the United States and France that there is six times the rate of death [from COVID-19] for people who are inside prisons. There is a legal obligation for people who are held in custody to be held safely. That has not been adhered to by the NSW government.”

The NSW prison system, which incarcerates about 13,000 people at any given time, has recorded hundreds of COVID-19 cases since the Delta variant entered Parklea Prison in late August.

Prisoner advocates have expressed their concern over CSNSW’s lack of transparency on case numbers. Despite health advice that prisoners be prioritised for vaccination, vaccination rates for prisoners in this state have lagged behind those of the general population. When the outbreak began at Parklea, just 22% of prisoners had been fully vaccinated statewide, less than half the rate of the general population.

Damning information has emerged that guards at Parklea Prison which is privately-operated, had tried to infect prisoners with COVID-19.

Prison activist Jacob Grech read out parts of an affidavit from Storm Leigh Zerafa, a prisoner at Parklea, claiming he was moved to Area 6C — the intensive care unit wing — despite not having the virus. Zerafa was tested for COVID-19 every five days for more than six weeks, returning negative results each time. Yet, he was confined to his cell and not allowed to exercise outside.

He said he asked a correctional services officer why he was not being sent back to the main prison and reports the officer replied: “You will be sent back when you catch COVID-19 and then get better”. Zerafa claims he was told this “about five times by different correctional officers”. Zerafa only received his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on October 1.

District Court Judge Andrew Colefax said on October 7 that the concerning evidence was not contested by the Crown and did “not seem to be an isolated case involving Parklea Correctional Centre”.

On October 22, corrections minister Anthony Roberts announced that the Department of Communities and Justice would initiate an independent inquiry into the allegations made by Zerafa and another prisoner regarding their treatment by staff at Parklea.