Criminal law experts have recommended Australian prisons and detention centres release some elderly, young and minor offenders to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our prisons.
In an open letter, more than 370 experts said prisons could become an epicentre for the virus because of closed spaces, lack of hygiene products and overcrowding.
Professor Lorana Bartels from the Australia National University, who coordinated the open letter to state and territory governments, said that vulnerable prisoners who are the most at risk should be released early.
“We know that COVID-19 spreads quickly in closed spaces and … this is particularly a concern where there is overcrowding, with most Australian prisons operating at over 100 per cent of their design capacity,” the letter said.
“This will then have a substantial flow-on effect to the community, including community health services [as] people are continually churning in and out of prisons and then being released to their communities.”
To help mitigate the spread of the virus, the experts are calling on Australian governments to adopt social distancing techniques in prisons where possible, minimise detention and prosecution of non-violent offences that do not pose a threat to the community and support bail for all defendants who are not high-risk.
Prisoners who are at a high risk of harm from the virus, including those with pre-existing health conditions, older people, children and younger people should be released early, as should those detained for minor offences like unlawful driving, fine defaults and non-violent drug offences, the letter recommended.
They also asked that prisoners who are scheduled for release in the next six months be let out early.
There were 474 prisoners in the ACT in 2019, according to data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in December. Around 20 per cent were sentenced for under a year, down from 25 per cent in 2018.
The spread of diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis in prisons can be more than 100 times higher than the general population, according to research published in the International Journal of Prisoner Health.
“Tens of thousands of people are likely to be released into the community by the end of the year, making them potential carriers of coronavirus back into communities,” Professor Bartels said.
The flow-on effect can also threaten the community before their release with correctional staff, health care workers, lawyers and visitors being exposed to prisoners on a daily basis, she said.
The release of the prisoners would not be unprecedented with NSW passing emergency legislation on Wednesday (25 March) that allows the state’s Corrective Services Commissioner to release prisoners early if they are satisfied it is “reasonably necessary” because of the risk posed by COVID-19.
Those serving sentences for murder, serious sex offences, terrorism offences or a life sentence will not be eligible for early release under the scheme.
The ACT Justice and Community Safety Directorate (JACS) said they were aware of the NSW legislation and told Region Media they are monitoring the issue.
“COVID 19 marks an unprecedented challenge for our Canberra community and the ACT Government,” a JACS spokesperson said.
“This proposal will be considered as part of ongoing efforts to ensuring the safety of detainees and staff at the Alexander Maconochie Centre.”
Prisoner release measures have taken place overseas in response to COVID-19. Iran has temporarily freed 85,000 prisons to combat the spread of the infection in prisons while four American states have done the same.