News & Current Affairs

By Carley Hitchins


COVID-19 – a death sentence in jails around the world

Custodial environments are susceptible to COVID-19 outbreaks given the confined conditions, potential for over-crowding and poor health profiles of the prison population. Extreme overcrowding means people are unable to self-isolate, provided with little in the way of protective resources and have inadequate access to healthcare services. Many of these people are medically vulnerable as a consequence of lifelong difficulties accessing healthcare, mental health and substance abuse problems, as well as unhealthy prison conditions.

We will probably never know the extent to which the coronavirus has penetrated the world’s prisons and detention centres as testing capacity is constrained, data reporting is poor, and inmates are rarely a priority.

In the United States, new cases among prisoners reached an all-time high in early August and by 18 August 2020, at least 102,494 people in prison had tested positive for the illness.[1]

Alarmingly, little has been done in the US to prevent the spread. Prisoners have been told to sleep head to toe (like a not so fun sleepover) and have resorted to using socks on their hands when using the phones. There is a shortage of soap, which is often rationed or only able to be purchased at the commissary – further disadvantaging the disadvantaged.

Because of the lack of resources, prisons and jails have resorted to using solitary confinement to isolate ill prisoners, which acts as a deterrent to report flu symptoms.

Today we learned of a potential outbreak in Australian Brisbane Youth Detention Centre, where a staff member has tested positive for COVID-19. Apparently, every young person detained at that facility is now in solitary confinement. The detrimental effects on the mental health of anyone, and particularly young person’s kept in solitary confinement should come as no surprise, however, the circumstances are more distressing when we know that a number of young inmates at the facility are on remand and are yet to be convicted.

What’s the solution? Depopulate prisons and jails. That solution will send the Karen’s of the world into meltdown, I know. We are taught from a young age that if you do the crime – you do the time. But we don’t punish people by giving them diseases, do we? It has been 35 years since all Australian jurisdictions abolished the death penalty. We cannot be sentencing people to death by virus. That is not justice, it’s neglect.

There are particular groups of prisoners who should, under appropriate circumstances, be released, including those with health conditions and First Nations people who are significantly over-represented in incarcerated populations and at increased risk from coronavirus infection and death and the elderly, who are also at high risk of contracting the virus, but at low risk of recidivism.

There has been some support for this solution across Australian states and territories, which may explain our lack of a large-scale outbreak in Australian correctional facilities.

In the ACT, the Emergency Response Bill gives the Director-General the power to declare an emergency. In an emergency the Director-General has the power to restrict movement and contact in the center and put in place other restrictions. It also has provisions to allow young people detained at Bimberi Youth Justice Centre to be granted leave, in the interest of health and safety. This will apply to young people considered low-risk and vulnerable, if there is transmission of COVID19 within the facility.

In NSW, the Commissioner for Corrective Services NSW has the authority to allow the conditional release of some low risk and vulnerable people from prison. Amendments were made the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) allowing the Commissioner to release prisoners who fall into the following categories:

  • an inmate whose health is at higher risk during the COVID-19 pandemic because of an existing medical condition or vulnerability
  • an inmate whose earliest possible release date is within 12 months.

Some individuals across Australia are also getting early parole or released due to individual advocacy or the discretion of judges. More can be done though in Australia as the risk of releasing particular prisoners into society, or into continued detention at home, vastly outweigh the risks of leaving them in a custodial environment as sitting ducks, waiting to fall ill.

Perhaps Coronavirus and these temporary laws presents an opportunity for us to critically assess our restrictive bail laws and our reliance generally on a flawed correctional system going forward.