March 24, 2020
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.
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