Prison is the 'perfect breeding ground' for COVID-19, human rights groups warn
3 April 2020 at 4:36 pm
Many people in prison face a greater risk of death should they contract the virus
Australian governments are being urged to reduce the number of prisoners to protect vulnerable groups during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Human Rights Law Centre has warned that social distancing is impossible in prisons, and released an explainer detailing how COVID-19 could spread “like wildfire” throughout the prison system.
HRLC legal director Shahleena Musk said it was crucial that governments across the country took urgent action to reduce the number of people detained in prison.
“The very nature of prisons means that people are in close proximity to others at all times,” Musk said.
“This makes prisons the perfect breeding ground for COVID-19 and once one person is infected on the inside, it will spread like wildfire throughout the prison system.”
Vulnerable groups at risk
Prisons are also a dangerous place for a COVID-19 outbreak because of the breakdown of the inmate population.
The HRLC said almost one-third of people in prison live with disability or have a chronic health condition such as asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – many of whom suffer from chronic health issues – make up around 30 per cent of the adult prison population in Australia.
Compared with the general population, these groups are all at greater risk of harm and possibly death if they get the virus.
Musk said a coordinated and structured release of prisoners must occur as soon as possible, before infections start to occur.
“In order to prevent the potential mass spread and incalculable harm should COVID-19 get into prisons around Australia, we call on governments to take action to reduce the numbers of people in these closed environments,” she said.
“Including those most at risk of serious harm from COVID-19, such as people with pre-existing health conditions and older people, children and young people.”
The HRLC has also said the use of solitary confinement as a primary means to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is inappropriate and dangerous.
Senior lawyer Monique Hurley said this would just put vulnerable groups at further risk of harm.
“Increased use of solitary confinement puts people in prison – particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – at greater risk of dying in custody, because they will not be able to easily alert prison staff if they develop symptoms of COVID-19, or if their condition worsens,” Hurley said.
Open letter calls for humane release of prisoners
This call for action follows the signing of a letter last week pleading for Victoria to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in the criminal justice system.
The letter – signed by 119 criminal and legal practitioners – was sent to the state’s attorney general and minister for corrections.
It said the Victorian government must release certain groups of prisoners, including those who are elderly or immunosuppressed, those serving sentences for non-violent crimes, those who are pregnant, and young people who can be housed and supported in the community.
The letter also said Indigenous prisoners, those who are soon eligible for parole, and people on remand that are unlikely to serve more than six months should be freed.
“Allowing this unnecessary exposure to a potentially deadly infection to the listed classes of prisoner will be such as to amount to torture. A society is judged by how it [treats] its most vulnerable,” the letter said.
“We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good and so we ask that these principles of decarceration be applied as soon as possible.”