Calls for prisoner release to stop spread of COVID-19 in prisons

Dominic Giannini 30 March 2020 57
Alexander Maconochie Centre

Academics are calling for all states and territories to release certain classes of prisoners to help minimise the spread of COVID-19 through Australia’s prisons. Photo: File.

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.


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57 Responses to Calls for prisoner release to stop spread of COVID-19 in prisons
Margaret Gracie Margaret Gracie 9:03 am 02 Apr 20

How would the virus get in? Not like they have been on a cruise.

Yuri Shukost Yuri Shukost 4:31 am 02 Apr 20

Ankle monitors and home detention is the only way I’d support this.

Isabella Goyne Isabella Goyne 4:45 pm 01 Apr 20

If they’re in for non-violent offences, it should be at least considered.

Chris Cross Chris Cross 11:15 am 31 Mar 20

A prison is the best place for self isolation. No visitors and lock them down. It IS a prison you know.... and 14 days later they'll be fine. Prematurely releasing prisoners is a ridiculous notion.

    Peter Marshall Peter Marshall 12:01 pm 31 Mar 20

    If the magistrates and judges stop sending new people into prison, or expecting remandees to turn up to court, and if no-one gets fed, and if the staff don't come and go, and if everyone has a single cell, and if no prisoners worked in kitchens, cleaning roles or anything else and if they never were seen by doctors or nurses, then yes, maybe you would be right.

Henry Kivimaki Henry Kivimaki 10:25 am 31 Mar 20

No..they are not experts.No logic. Please don't. This is a leftist fantasy of releasing anarchy into society. I understand genuine low risk cases on terms of compassion etc ... Remember... the devil is in the detail.

Chris Mark Chris Mark 10:01 am 31 Mar 20

Let them all out

grim123 grim123 9:32 am 31 Mar 20

Peak social justice idiocy.

Daniel Duncan Daniel Duncan 6:33 am 31 Mar 20

Why not just lock down the prison and have a rotating times when only a few detainees at a time can get out and exercise. They would be safer than in the community.

Les Senior Williamson Les Senior Williamson 1:17 am 31 Mar 20

There's enough prats running around now, we don't need any more.

John Sykes John Sykes 12:38 am 31 Mar 20

Kept in the cell with no contact with others, should be safer for them. We are near house arrest, they can stay in their nice safe jail.

Mark Dawson Mark Dawson 12:25 am 31 Mar 20

Releasing a group of convicted criminals while many shops are closed and unattended... what could possibly go wrong? 🤔

Jackie Tomich Jackie Tomich 11:46 pm 30 Mar 20

Sure, why not? It's the end of the world anyway.

Acton Acton 10:23 pm 30 Mar 20

Every one of the 370 ‘experts’ who signed the letter to give one vulnerable prisoner a room in their own home for 14 days of self-quarantine. Still interested oh righteous ones?

Geoff Roberts Geoff Roberts 10:06 pm 30 Mar 20

NO! No more needs to be said. Ask the society they offended.

Peter Major Peter Major 9:39 pm 30 Mar 20

They are safer in than out. And so are we

Paul Hazell Paul Hazell 8:54 pm 30 Mar 20

This has got to be the daftest thing I have heard of in a long time. They have already proven that they cannot follow society's rules, so why would you want to release them back into society at a time we need strict rule keepers? Besides, prison is a perfect place to self-isolate.

Ness Draillal Ness Draillal 8:48 pm 30 Mar 20

#Stayathome - that’s their home - it’s good enough for all of us everywhere and wherever you call home .

Mitch Hanigan Mitch Hanigan 8:42 pm 30 Mar 20

Restrict visitors (should be on lockdown anyway) and stop any workers who are sick going to work. Problem solved.

Kim Vella Kim Vella 8:35 pm 30 Mar 20

Aren't they safer inside if they have restricted visitors?

Tina Newsome Tina Newsome 8:24 pm 30 Mar 20

No thanks.

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