Media Release - Covid-19 Supreme Court Challenge

The Fitzroy Legal Service and Human Rights Law Centre have filed a case in the Supreme Court of Victoria arguing that the Andrews Government must take steps to keep people in prison and the broader community safe from the risks posed by COVID-19. 

Media Release

 | For immediate release: Wednesday 28 April 2020

Supreme Court challenge to argue that the Andrews Government must take action to protect people in prison and broader community from COVID-19 risk

The Fitzroy Legal Service and Human Rights Law Centre have filed a case in the Supreme Court of Victoria arguing that the Andrews Government must take steps to keep people in prison and the broader community safe from the risks posed by COVID-19. 

Health experts around the world have said that prisons, like cruise ships, are potential hot-beds for COVID-19 because people live and work in such close quarters. Prisons are overcrowded, unhygienic, have minimal health care and have hundreds of staff coming and going all of the time. In the face of such acute risks, public health experts are recommending that certain groups of people be safely released. 

The case will be heard today. It is being bought on behalf of a person in prison who, like many other people in prison, has pre-existing health conditions that put them at increased risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19. 

Monique Hurley, Senior Lawyer, Human Rights Law Centre said governments should be working around the clock to reduce the potential risks posed by COVID-19 in prisons. 

“Victoria is not out of the woods yet. Prisons are a COVID-19 powderkeg, for the people trapped in them, the people who work in them and the broader community. In this new COVID-19 context, to keep people safe, governments must rethink over-crowded prisons and responsibly release certain groups of people. The UK and US have both put in place release programs, but Australian governments are lagging behind. If COVID-19 gets into prisons – and it could only take one case – it will spread like wildfire and put all of us at risk,” said Hurley. 

Many people in prison are at great risk of severe illness and even death should they contract COVID-19, with almost one-third of people entering prison having a chronic medical condition like asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease or diabetes. This disproportionately impacts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prison, who suffer higher rates of chronic health issues than non-Indigenous people. 

Karen Fletcher, Managing Lawyer, Fitzroy Legal Service said the Government must put in place a plan to keep people in prisons and in the community safe.

“Prisons are unhealthy places at the best of times. People in prison have very high rates of ill health.  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. Rather than opting for cruel and inhuman solutions like indefinite solitary confinement, 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,” said Fletcher. 

The Human Rights Law Centre and the Fitzroy Legal Service are calling for all Australian governments to reduce the number of people trapped in prisons by:

·         Granting leave to those most at risk of COVID-19, including people with underlying health conditions, and working with those people to ensure they have safe accommodation;

·         Granting early release to people in prison who are close to the end of their sentence;

·         Granting parole to people in prison who have been convicted of low level offending and who pose a low risk to the community if released; and

·         Allowing people on remand – who are yet to be found guilty of any criminal offending – to more easily access bail.

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

Media contact:

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