Media Release 20 July 2020

Media Release

 | For immediate release: Monday 20 July 2020

Andrews Government must reduce the number of people in prisons as part of response to COVID-19

With COVID-19 entering a Victorian prison and youth detention centres, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, legal and human rights organisations are demanding the Andrews Government commit to safely reducing the number of people locked away in Victorian prisons. 

Advocates have long argued that prisons are tinder-boxes for COVID-19 - that once the pandemic enters, it risks spreading like wildfire. In order to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, the Andrews Government must take urgent steps to reduce the number of people detained in prisons and youth justice centres, including those most at risk of serious harm from COVID-19. This can be done by:

1.    Granting administrative leave on health grounds to those most at risk of COVID-19 and most impacted by restrictive measures - like increased use of solitary confinement - being used to try to contain the virus. Priority in this process should be given to elderly people, people with chronic health conditions, people with disability and mental health conditions, children, young people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people;

2.    Using existing legal powers to grant 14 days early release to people in prison who are close to the end of their sentence;

3.    Granting parole or leave to people in prison who pose a low risk to the community if released;

4.    Granting parole or leave to children and young people, so that they can be with, and be supported by, their families and community during this ongoing public health emergency; and

5.    Making bail more accessible for children, young people and adults on remand, who are yet to be found guilty of any criminal offending and who pose a low risk to the community if released.

People in prison have limited to no access to masks and testing so are compromised in their ability to protect themselves from COVID-19. This is compounded by the fact that prisons are overcrowded; have substandard hygiene practices; poor healthcare services; a population with high-risk health conditions; and a revolving door of workers entering the prison and then returning to their families and community every day.

The public health advice to physically distance during the pandemic is also impossible in prisons. The very nature of prisons - like aged care facilities, hospitals, meat processing plants, public housing towers and cruise ships - is that people live and work in very close proximity to others. This makes these settings the perfect breeding ground for COVID-19, and once one person is infected, the evidence shows that it will spread.

The risks posed by COVID-19 to adults and children in prison extend beyond contracting the virus, and include the punitive steps taken in response, such as solitary confinement, and limited to no access to family and lawyers.

As people churn through the criminal legal system on a daily basis, the risk of COVID-19 spreading extends to the broader community. Many people come and go from prisons including prison staff, contractors, health professionals and educators. As a result, there is opportunity for COVID-19 to enter a prison, and for it to spread to the wider community. 

The overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the criminal legal system - due to colonisation, systemic racism and entrenched socioeconomic disadvantage -  means that they will be disproportionately impacted should there be an outbreak of COVID-19 in Victoria’s prisons. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody are also particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, with many people having underlying medical conditions.

The Andrews Government should responsibly release people from custody, giving them the necessary services and supports to be safe and healthy in the community.

Nerita Waight, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, said:

“Getting control of an outbreak of COVID-19 in detention will be much more difficult than preventing an outbreak in the first place. The Andrews Government has an opportunity that it cannot afford to squander. The cost is simply too high – for people in detention, and for all of the Victorian community. The health of the people in custody is inextricably linked to the health of all Victorians during this pandemic. We have seen the devastation that comes with the spread of COVID-19 in detention in countries such as the USA.”

Monique Hurley, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said:

“Everybody deserves to be safe during a pandemic. Evidence from around the world is clear - once COVID-19 enters a prison, it will spread like wildfire. Prisons are a COVID-19 powder keg, not only for the people trapped in them, but also for the people who work in them and the broader community. To keep people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Andrews Government must responsibly release certain groups of people now.”

Karen Fletcher, Managing Lawyer at the Fitzroy Legal Service, said:

“Prisons are unhealthy places at the best of times. Maintaining overcrowded, unhygienic, neglected prisons, where people come and go all of the time, goes against all of the public health advice. It puts people in prison and prison staff at acute risk. The Andrews Government must listen to health experts around the globe and safely release some groups of people from prison to reduce overcrowding and enable social distancing.”

Damien Stock, CEO of the Inner Melbourne Community Legal Centre, said:

“The potential threat to life by people in high-risk categories is not being met by current prevention strategies alone. The government must take immediate steps to release appropriate categories of people – and importantly it must ensure fundamental integration services are provided to support people returning to a society in isolation.”

Read the Human Rights Law Centre’s explainer on Prisons and COVID-19 here.

Contacts:

Michelle Bennett, Communications Director at the Human Rights Law Centre: 0419 100 519

Andreea Lachsz, Senior Policy, Research and Advocacy Officer at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service: alachsz@vals.org.au