Urgent action is required in response to the news of the worsening outbreak of COVID cases in prisons and the tragic death of a NSW youth corrections officer.
We understand from media reports on 17 September 2021, that more than 40 NSW corrections staff were Covid-positive (not including staff at the privately-run Parklea prison, where the outbreak began) as well as more than 300 inmates across the prison system also testing positive, including 84 First Nations people.
The risk we flagged in August, of Covid spreading rapidly in prisons, is becoming more likely by the day and it is crucial that all necessary measures be taken immediately to mitigate the risk of this happening.Read more
CCL has been concerned about the treatment in Immigration Detention Centres, and particularly in Villawood, of detainees who are put into quarantine for fourteen days when they return from medical or dental appointments outside of the centres.
Now The Saturday Paper reports that a detainee who was identified as a contact of a guard at Villawood who contracted COVID-19 has similarly been put into isolation in a room with no view outside and minimal furniture. Even worse, this time the light has been left on all night. This, as he complains, is a recognised form of torture.Read more
In the light of news that at least one guard has tested positive, NSWCCL is renewing its calls for refugees to be released from detention immediately.
Last week news broke that a guard at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA), had tested positive for COVID-19 — the Delta variant. MITA is one of the larger detention centres for asylum seekers and non-citizens who have had their visas cancelled under the character test provisions of the Migration Act.Read more
NSWCCL is increasingly concerned about the impact on detainees in our immigration detention facilities of current quarantine arrangements. In particular, the treatment of people who return to detention centres after medical appointments is unacceptable.
- They are confined in small rooms for a fortnight.
- There is nothing in the room except a bed, an open toilet and a wash basin.
- The windows are tinted, so detainees cannot see out.
- There is no access to personal possessions.
- No reading material is available - not even a Bible, Torah or Koran.
- There's no exercise outside of the room.
- A change of under clothes may not be available for several days.
- There is a buzzer to call for attention, but people may have to wait for a lengthy period for a response.
Until recently, NSW had seen very few COVID cases in prisons. But that has changed, with Croakey Health Media reporting on Monday that:
"In response to queries from Croakey, NSW justice officials last week confirmed seven (including one staff member) COVID-19 cases in prisons and juvenile justice facilities, the highest number in a justice jurisdiction since the pandemic began, according to international advocacy group Human Rights Watch."
This is of particular concern given the over-representation of Indigenous people in our prisons, coupled with their disproportionate COVID risk. NSWCCL is calling on the government to take urgent action, including:Read more
In June 2020, NSWCCL raised concerns about the physical safety of people in prison during the pandemic, given the difficulty of social distancing within a prison environment.
While it is reassuring that, to date, the number of COVID-19 cases in custodial settings has been limited, we remain concerned.
Firstly, we have ongoing concerns about inmate safety and the risk of rapid transmission of COVID should it make its way into prisons. For example, it has been reported to us that in a wing of about 200 at Cessnock, there is no social distancing, inmates do not wear masks, inmates remain unvaccinated and jabs have not been offered to some inmates.Read more
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