NSWCCL News

NSWCCL: Overcrowded detention centres are ripe for the spread of infectious diseases

Media coverage: 9 News

Staff at a detention centre in NSW are ignoring fears cramped conditions will aid the spread of coronavirus, detainees and advocates say. 

Issa Andrwas, a detainee at Sydney's Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, says social distancing rules are not being enforced by the home affairs department. "We are not supposed to be gathered together but two or three people are sleeping in one room," Mr Adrwas told AAP from inside Villawood.

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties says overcrowded detention centres are ripe for the spread of infectious diseases.

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Statement: COVID-19 and prisons

March 24, 2020

PUBLIC STATEMENT

Reducing the risk of COVID-19: reducing the number of people in custody 

The risk of transmission of COVID-19 in correctional centres and youth detention centres demands urgent action to reduce the number of people in those centres.

The NSWCCL strongly supports the ‘Open letter to Australian governments on COVID-19 and the criminal justice system’ https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-20/open-letter-to-australian-governments-on-covid-19-and-the-crimi/12076342.

Overcrowding of gaols is a well-known condition which renders the prison population more vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases. Many people in custody present with pre-existing and chronic health conditions which may increase the risk to their health if infected with COVID-19. 

We are deeply concerned that failing to significantly reduce prison numbers will lead to a rapid spread of the infection which would unacceptably compromise the health and safety of inmates, young people and the families and communities to whom they are released. This is particularly concerning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and who suffer poorer health outcomes. We are also concerned for the health and safety of corrections and justice health staff, lawyers, cleaners other gaol workers and the families and communities they go home to.

The risk of infection will inevitably be exacerbated by the significant delays in finalising cases which will result from important measures being put in place by the courts to limit face-to-face contact of court users, such as the suspension of jury trials. On 23 March 2020 a restriction was placed on new criminal cases commencing in the NSW District Court (other than sentences and appeals) and directed that trials currently listed be vacated and be re-listed after October 2020 (with the exception of Judge alone trials and current trials). The Supreme Court announced that from Tuesday, 24 March 2020 ‘there shall be no personal appearances in any matters save in exceptional circumstances’ 

Reducing prison numbers can be done by:

  • Urgently considering legislation to enable early release of prisoners who are not considered high risk or who are soon to be released as has been done in some other countries
  • Amending the Bail Act and the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act to require courts (and police in relation to bail) to take into account the potential impact of COVID-19 upon the accused and the community.
  • Police and the courts taking into account the impact of COVID-19 upon the accused in the context of the current bail framework, including the accused’s potential risk of exposure, the length of time in custody (including the impact of the delays), the vulnerability of the person and the likelihood of a custodial penalty (which may more appropriately be a community based option if the person is vulnerable to infection by virtue of their incarceration or the person has a vulnerability which increases the risk to their health).

We urge that courts refrain from imposing sentences of full-time custody unless assurances are provided by corrective services that:

  • the offender will not be forced to share cells or spaces which are inconsistent with the government guidelines in relation to distancing; and
  • that offenders will not be exposed to persons who corrective services are aware may be infected or at risk of carrying the virus.

 

Transparency and Accountability 

The information currently available on NSW Corrective Services and NSW Justice Health websites is inadequate. Inmates, young people in detention, their families, the public, the legal profession and the courts are entitled to know essential information and policies including:

  • In what circumstances are inmates and young people being tested for COVID-19?
  • In what circumstances are staff being tested for COVID-19?
  • What arrangements are being made in relation to vulnerable members of the prison population: the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?
  • What are the arrangements for isolating any inmates who test positive for COVID-19, including the length of time they are to be isolated and in what conditions?
  • How are accused persons who are arriving from overseas (such as those who may have been arrested for importing drugs) being isolated?
  • the impact on inmates who share a wing, pod or gaol with an inmate who tests positive for COVID-19 and what arrangements or changes will occur to the conditions of their incarceration?
  • the number of beds at Long Bay hospital that are available for treating any inmate or young person testing positive who requires hospital care;
  • what alternative arrangements would be available if Long Bay hospital reached capacity?
  • the arrangements, if any, for any inmates who are released in relation to testing and, if positive, whether inmates are provided transport and transmission to appropriate health services?
  • the availability or cancellation of rehabilitation programs as a result of the risk posed by COVID-19.

We urge NSW Corrective Services and NSW Justice Health to publish this information on their websites to ensure accuracy. 

As at 22 March 2020, NSW Corrective Services’ website indicated that “We have no confirmed cases of the virus within any of our correctional centres”. On 20 March 2020, The Sydney Morning Herald reported “two staff members at a high-security mental health facility in Sydney's south have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and dozens of staff and patients have been placed into isolation”. We urge NSW Corrective Services and NSW Justice Health to publish accurate information on their websites. It is understood that the forensic hospital is under the jurisdiction of NSW Justice Health, however, sections 55 and 56 of the Mental Health (Forensic Provisions) Act provide for transfer of persons between the hospital and correctional centres. For this reason, we urge disclosure on the NSW Corrective Services website. It should also be made clear whether there has been any potential transmission by Justice Health staff spending time in either the hospital or a correctional centre or whether any forensic patients have been transferred to correctional centres within the relevant time period. 

Unprecedented times require the courage to make decisions which are consistent with evidence and the wellbeing of the whole community. We call on the government to urgently reduce the number of people incarcerated to lessen public health risks. We call on NSW Corrective Services and NSW Justice Health to provide clear and detailed information to the public.   

 

Nicholas Cowdery AO QC

President, NSW Council for Civil Liberties

 

Rebecca McMahon & Eugene Schofield-Georgeson

Convenors, Criminal Justice Action Group

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The pursuit of assange - politically motivated and unjust

NSWCCL recently joined other organisations and individuals in reaffirming our support for Julian Assange in the context of his fight against extradition to the USA. We spoke at the Assange rally in Sydney in February and subsequently sent a public letter to the Prime Minister urging the Australian Government to take effective action to support Assange in his fight against extradition and assist his return to Australia.

Assange’s situation is desperate and dangerous. His mental and physical health have been seriously compromised. He is imprisoned in a London gaol with limited capacity to communicate with his legal team. If he is extradited to the USA, he will face charges which will expose him to a likely outcome of life imprisonment in a high security gaol.

The relentless pursuit of Julian Assange over the last decade has been politically motivated, cruel and unjustifiable.  In our view he has not engaged in criminal activity. Assange and wikileaks published truthful information about shocking and wrongful activities - including war crimes - which had been kept secret. 

The public had an unquestionable right to know about these actions done in their name. Their publication constituted public interest journalism for which NSWCCL will continue to defend Assange.   

Wider implications

The implications of this pursuit of Assange go well beyond his personal fate. The determination of the USA to capture and severely punish Assange is a politically motivated enterprise aimed not only at him, but at warning off future whistle-blowers and journalists who might contemplate exposing secret US Government information in the public interest.

The calculated decision to charge Assange under the US Espionage Act 1917 is particularly disturbing.  If Assange is successfully prosecuted for these offences, it will have global implications for journalists and the free press and will challenge the strength of protection provided to journalists by the First Amendment’s prohibition of any US law ‘abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’.

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Climate change bill 2020

Australia’s recent bushfire season of unprecedented scale, foreseen years ago by climate scientists as a likely result of a warming planet, lays bare the urgent need for climate justice. With this context in mind, NSWCCL wishes to affirm its support for the Climate Change (National Framework for Adaptation and Mitigation) Bill 2020 (“the Bill”), to be introduced to Parliament by the independent MP for Warringah Zali Steggall.

Modelled on similar legislation passed by several developed nations, including the UK, Germany and France, the Bill attempts to provide policy certainty, transparency and accountability in relation to emissions reduction targets and climate adaptation. Amongst other innovations, the Bill:

  • creates an independent Climate Change Commission (CCC) to help prepare emissions reduction plans and budgets, report on progress, conduct climate change risk assessments, and advise the government in relation to climate adaptation;
  • sets a statutory emissions reduction target of zero net emissions by 2050 which cannot be varied without the consent of the CCC;
  • institutes five-yearly whole-of-economy emissions budgets; and
  • establishes a number of guiding principles which administrative decision-makers, as well as the CCC itself, must consider.
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Statement: Minister for Police and Community Services, David Elliott

11 March 2020

PUBLIC STATEMENT

NSW Council for Civil Liberties considers the Minister for Police and Community Services, David Elliott, should stand down while a NSW police investigation into whether he has committed a criminal offence is ongoing.

Ministers have a responsibility to maintain the public trust that has been placed in them by performing their duties with honesty and integrity, in compliance with the rule of law.

It is untenable for the Minister for Police, with responsibility for the conduct of the NSW Police Force, to maintain public confidence in the NSW Police Force while he himself is under investigation for a serious offence, in this case an offence which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment.

While Mr Elliott is entitled to the presumption of innocence and says that he acted in good faith and fired a semi-automatic weapon and pistol "under the strict supervision of the range master",  that does not properly address the question of whether the public can have confidence in the integrity of the police investigation while Mr Elliott remains Minister for Police.


NSWCCL contact: Stephen Blanks, Treasurer - office@nswccl.org.au

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Privacy advocates warnings on metadata laws

Media coverage: Information Age, Australian Computer Society

Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton has once again invoked the spectre of paedophiles and terrorists in calling for an expansion of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD)’s powers that would allow the foreign-focused agency to conduct domestic investigations for the first time.

A long-simmering policy change, the ABC reports, would allow the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to enlist the services of the ASD – the government’s overseas surveillance and signals-intelligence unit, which “operates in the slim area between the difficult and the impossible”, as its Web site puts it – to investigate certain matters within Australia’s borders.

Privacy advocates such as the Law Council of Australia and NSW Council for Civil Liberties, labelled metadata laws “indiscriminate and excessive” warned about the “cumulative chilling and intimidatory impact of the Government’s expanded surveillance powers and secrecy offences”.

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NSWCCL Vice President on invasive searches and drug testing at Sydney festival

Media coverage: Sydney Morning Herald

One in 10 children at a Sydney under-age music festival faced random drug testing that has been labelled by legal experts "potentially unlawful" and an infringement on civil liberties.

Samantha Lee, police accountability solicitor at the Redfern Legal Centre, said the measures were "potentially unlawful" and jeopardised the safety of young people.

"This weekend, young people still considered minors under the law – and without a parent or guardian present – are about to be subjected to invasive drug and alcohol testing usually restricted to roadside use or conducted on people operating dangerous workplace machinery," she said.

"Upon entry to the festival, these young people will be confronted by drug dogs, police and security with no understanding of their legal rights, and no one present to advocate on their behalf."

Rebecca McMahon, vice-president of the NSW Council of Civil Liberties, said the measures adopted by festival organisers were a concerning infringement on civil liberties and personal integrity.

"Young people especially should have the freedom to enjoy music without being subjected to unreasonable restrictions on their possessions, oppressive searches and invasive drug testing," she said.

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CCL at Religious Discrimination Bill protest rally

Despite the rain, NSWCCL Committee member, Lydia Shelly (pictured) spoke at Sydney's No Right to Discriminate: Religious Discrimination Bill protest rally this month. Lydia spoke to the CCL position on the bill, how religious groups have been co-opted, and the implications of the proposed bill.

CCL supports the need for a law against religious discrimination, but this Bill subverts key principles as to the ‘indivisibility and equality’ of human rights. It grossly over-privileges religious rights to the detriment of other rights. It seriously weakens existing anti-discrimination laws. It will cause harm to many groups and generate dissension and ill-will in our community.

It is CCL's view that the Government must withdraw this Bill and start again with a better and more cohesive process. More detail on CCL position HERE.

*Lydia Shelly is a lawyer and student in terrorism and security studies, and  a Committee Member, NSW Council for Civil Liberties.

 Here we share the speech Lydia gave at the rally.


 

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NSWCCL concerned LECC Inquiry into strip searches effectively 'scrapped'

Media coverage: 9 News
The NSW police watchdog will hear further evidence regarding strip searches, its acting boss says, following concerns the inquiry had effectively been "scrapped" by the state government.
Concerns were raised over the future of the inquiry after the coalition revealed in December that the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission's then-chief commissioner, Michael Adams QC, would not have his appointment renewed.

NSW Council for Civil Liberties vice president Dr Eugene Schofield-Georgeson on the weekend expressed concern the inquiry was effectively being "scrapped" by the government because it "stands to be embarrassed by the commission's findings".

He said the commission had been poised to hear "some of the most damning and dramatic evidence against routinised strip-searches" before Mr Adams was let go.

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NSWCCL also joined calls to re-instate Commissioner Adams

"The commission has been shut down at precisely the moment when it was poised to hear some of the most damning and dramatic evidence against routinised strip-searches," Dr Schofield-Georgeson told AAP.
"What we would like in an ideal world is for Mr Adams QC to be reappointed as the commissioner.

 

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NSWCCL President 'police strip search targets a political exercise'

Media coverage: The Saturday Paper

In New South Wales, police now have quotas to search people and move on others. They call these “proactive strategies”. This financial year, they will conduct 237,089 searches. Some will be strip-searches. Some will be conducted against minors. Few will turn up results.

Police set these targets. They hoped for 241,632 searches last financial year, but fell short by a couple of thousand. There is no evidence the targets reduce crime. If anything, they distract police and malign the community.

On Thursday, Nicholas Cowdery, QC, told The Sydney Morning Herald that the quotas created a “great potential for abuse of power”. The state’s former director of public prosecutions said the “natural human response will be to seek to meet the target by proper or improper means – by fudging, by exercising power where it is not properly warranted”.

Most potently, he said the targets were “a political exercise on the part of the police and, consequently, on the part of the government”.

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