Everyone deserves to be safe during a pandemic, including people in prison

By Monique Hurley
prison fence

From the outset, health experts have warned that prisons are COVID-19 tinder boxes. That if the virus enters these over-crowded environments, it will put lives at risk. Compounding this is the reality that prisons provide poor health care to a population with especially acute health needs. Almost one-third of people entering prison have a chronic medical condition like asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes or are living with a disability. 

Right now in Victoria, we are seeing the first flames of the virus enter adult and children’s prisons. Six adult and two youth prisons have recently been in lockdown. The people behind bars, the people who work in prisons, and their families and communities, are at acute risk. 

The safest and most responsible thing for Premier Daniel Andrews to do right now to stop the spread of COVID-19 and to save lives is to responsibly release people from prisons. 

We have seen instances around the world where once COVID-19 hits prisons, cases can soar. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, in America, nine of the 10 largest clusters of COVID-19 are in prisons and jails.

Years of foolish and punitive law making has meant that Victoria is not only amidst a public health crisis, it is also amidst a mass imprisonment crisis, and these two realities are a deadly cocktail.

The public health advice is for us to all help ‘flatten the curve’ by physically distancing during the pandemic. This is impossible in prisons. The very nature of prisons — like aged care facilities, meat processing plants, public housing towers and cruise ships — means that people are in close proximity to others at all times. 

Years of foolish and punitive law making has meant that Victoria is not only amidst a public health crisis, it is also amidst a mass imprisonment crisis, and these two realities are a deadly cocktail. Corrections Victoria data shows that the number of people in Victorian prisons has increased by 86 per cent over the last 10 years. Thirty seven per cent of people in prisons are there on pre-trial detention. The number of women in prisons has more than doubled. 

The overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – due to the effects of colonisation and systemic racism – means that they will be disproportionately impacted when there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in Victoria’s prisons.

People also churn through the criminal legal system on a daily basis and the risk of COVID-19 spreading extends to the broader community. Many people come and go from prisons every day including prison workers, health professionals and educators. 

As a result, there is ample opportunity for an asymptomatic person with COVID-19 to enter a prison, and vice versa, for it to be taken home to families and communities. 

The risks posed by COVID-19 to people in prison extend beyond contracting the virus, and include the punitive steps taken in response, like lockdowns that are essentially code for solitary confinement. Harming people cannot form part of the COVID-19 public health response — particularly when there are far safer options.   

The Andrews Government must take immediate steps to shrink the number of people detained in prisons. As has been done overseas, this can be done by granting administrative leave on health grounds to those most at risk of contracting COVID-19 and granting early release to people in prison who are close to the end of their sentence. 

If this moment is to teach us anything, it is that governments must end mass imprisonment. Putting lives at risk and locking more and more people away is not what a fair and just society does

This can also be done by granting parole to people who pose a low risk to the community and by making bail more accessible for people in pre-trial detention, who are yet to be found guilty of any criminal offence. 

Priority should be given to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, elderly people, people with chronic health conditions, and people with disability and mental health conditions. 

Children and young people, like those who have recently been in lockdown at Malmsbury youth prison, should also be prioritised so that they can be with, and be supported by, their families and communities during this ongoing public health emergency.

Premier Andrews must take action to stop a COVID-19 avalanche in Victorian prisons – he must make the brave and sensible decision to release people into safety. The decisions that his Government makes in the near future will be critical to ensuring that everyone is kept as safe as possible during this pandemic. 

If this moment is to teach us anything, it is that governments must end mass imprisonment. Putting lives at risk and locking more and more people away is not what a fair and just society does. Now and into the future, we need to reduce the number of people in our prisons.

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