Prisoners are 'sitting ducks' for COVID-19

October 5, 2021
Silverwater Correctional Complex. Photo: Wikipedia / Saberwyn CC BY-SA 3.0

New South Wales could be considered barbaric according to the famous dictum attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky: “The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons”.

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) advice to make people in prisons a priority group for COVID-19 vaccination has not been heeded.

Just 22% of NSW prisoners had been vaccinated by late August when cases began to emerge in prisons. This is far lower than the corresponding statewide figure. By late September about one-third of all prisoners had been vaccinated, still lower than the statewide rate.

As of late September, 300 prisoners had contracted COVID-19 in NSW prisons. Cases have been reported in Bathurst Jail, Parklea Correctional Centre, Silverwater’s Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre and Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre.

Parklea Correctional Centre in north-west Sydney, privately run by MTC-Broadspectrum, accounts for the majority of the recorded infections. By mid-September, of about 1300 prisoners, at least 159 had tested positive. Parklea’s private management is notorious for racism and neglect of its charges.

Corrective Services NSW (CSNSW) requires prisoners with flu-like symptoms be isolated immediately. But The Saturday Paper said on September 25 that at least one Parklea inmate claimed he had not been tested until five days after developing symptoms. He said he had to wait another two days to receive his positive result, after which he was isolated.

A report by Denham Sadler for the 7am podcast said prisoners are mistreated at Parklea if they test positive. “They are locked in a cell for up to 24 hours a day and only let out for a shower one time every 3 days. Many didn’t see sunlight for 2 or 3 weeks.”

A NSW parliamentary inquiry into the management of COVID-19 was told on September 17 about the neglect and indifference COVID-19 positive prisoners experience.

Aboriginal activist Keenan Mundine, co-founder of Deadly Connections, told the inquiry that inmates found it hard to access personal protective equipment. Brett Collins, co-coordinator of Justice Action, also addressed the inquiry. “We don’t really know how many cases [of COVID-19] are in prisons,” he told Green Left. “When we talk to prison managers, they give us low numbers and say prisoners who are previously infected have recovered and are no longer infected. But families of prisoners tell us otherwise."

Collins is worried about prisoners dying from COVID-19 after an officer at a youth detention centre died on September 17. He said “COVID is more deadly for people in prisons because prisoners have underlying health conditions.” such as weakened immune systems, problems related to drug and alcohol use, and mental health issues.

“Prisoners are sitting ducks for this deadly virus," he said. “The rate of infections inside prisons are about six times that of the general community.”

Prisoners are unable to maintain distancing. “The government enacts a 1.5 metre rule but that doesn’t enable people inside prisons to abide by this rule,” Collins said. “There are choke points in prisons which all prisoners have to travel through … you have people moving through certain areas, to go to the doctor, to get food. There is a constant flow through these security points.”

Collins also revealed that the new building infrastructure in prisons prevents prisoners from distancing. The so-called “Rapid Build Dormitories” only have “fabric between each person on their beds”.

Since prison officers can bring the virus into prisons, CSNSW’s acting commissioner Kevin Corcoran said on September 14 that they would be mandated to receive a first dose of the vaccination by October 30 and a second dose by the end of January 2022.

The NSW Public Service Association, which covers prison officers, supports that mandate but also wants it applied to prisoners. Collins agrees that officers should be vaccinated, but he is against mandatory vaccinations for prisoners.

“This is untenable," he said. "Prisoners wouldn’t have a choice … No other section of the population has been forcibly vaccinated [and] prisoners should not be the first. Instead of forced vaccinations, we need Aboriginal health and peer workers to come in and convince prisoners.”

Dr Thalia Anthony, an activist and Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Technology Sydney, said it is not clear how many COVID-19 cases there are in NSW prisons. She told GL that the rates of vaccination in prison are also unknown. She said some prisoners who had wanted to be vaccinated were not because of a lack of supply. “A whole lot of vaccines were diverted from prisons to HSC students,” she said.

She said “prison governors rule prisons like little empires” and that some people “have been threatened with transfer and segregation if they don’t have vaccination”.

Anthony and other prisoner rights advocates are circulating an open letter calling on the NSW government and acting corrections commissioner Kevin Corcoran to release people from prisons. They want the “safe release of people in prisons and youth detention centres, beginning with First Nations people and people with physical and mental health conditions”.

The statement has been signed by more than 170 individuals and organisations including Deadly Connections, reformist lawyer Elizabeth Evatt, Civil Liberties Australia, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and NSW Users and AIDS Association and Justice Action.

Labor leader Chris Minns said he would be “hugely concerned” by any move to release hundreds of prisoners.

Justice Action has taken legal action in the Supreme Court on behalf of prisoners and their families against Corcoran. They want prisoners to be able to socially distance, with no more than 1 person per 4 square meters in a cell, for early parole to be granted and to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to all prisoners.

“The only way they [CSNSW] can enact COVID-19 health measures is to release people from prison," Collins said. "Justice Action and families of prisoners are calling on the government to release non-violent prisoners.” They also want CSNSW to provide personal protective equipment and give computer tablets to prisoners to help them stay in contact with health professionals and family during prison lockdowns.

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