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Prisoners need action now facing COVID-19



Regardless of how closely – or not – you follow the issue, you’ll be aware of unrest, tension and systemic problems within prisons across Australia. Sensationalist headlines are always guaranteed to receive clicks, but aren’t always supported by any explanation or analysis of the underlying factors.

Main image: Prison wall barbed wire fence with blue sky background (Photo by josefkubes/Getty Images)They rarely focus on the growing number of people in prison on remand — yet to be convicted of a crime — which is around one third of people in prison across Australia at the moment. They don’t highlight the number of people in prison for non-violent technical offences such as breaches of orders who would be better served being held accountable for their actions in the community. 

They also fail to inform the broader population about the increase in the number of women, predominately for non-violent offences, in the system or the continuing over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Prison populations are rising at unsustainable rates in many jurisdictions, in major part due to tough-on-crime policies and an erosion of flexible sentencing options. This has led to unprecedented overcrowding, and in some states, serious issues about staff numbers and resourcing which in turn impacts the safety of both staff and prisoners.

Rehabilitation must be the goal of any effective prison system. We all want to the community at large to be safe, and to live in a society with less crime and fewer victims. That means it is in everybody’s best interests that people who exit prison and return to the community do so better off than when they entered.

We know that prisons are pressure cooker environments at the best of times. We can’t let them also become sites of mass infection, with potentially grave consequences, during the current COVID-19 health crisis.

The World Health Organisation states that the COVID-19 virus infects people of all ages but that the two groups of people at higher risk of severe illness are people with underlying medical conditions and older people. Worryingly, these two groups are prominent in Australia’s prison population, and prison populations globally. According to the most recent report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare on Australian prisoners' health, 30 per cent of prison entrants reported at least one chronic physical health condition.

These statistics are reflected in the Jesuit Social Services’ work with men and women above the age of 18 exiting prison. Consistent with available literature, participants we work with report personal experience of complex health issues including cardiovascular disease, blood-borne viruses like hepatitis C, asthma and diabetes. Through this work, we also engage with a number of older prisoners, reflected in corrective services data, who present with a range of unique health needs.


'Our prisons are already stretched to breaking point with a cohort of people who, on average, have more serious health problems than the general population. This is why we urge our political leaders to take urgent and appropriate steps to minimise the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak.'


Our prisons are already stretched to breaking point with a cohort of people who, on average, have more serious health problems than the general population. This is why we urge our political leaders to take urgent and appropriate steps to minimise the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak.

We know that the recommended COVID-19 preventative measures around washing your hands, using hand sanitizer and social distancing are impossible to adhere to in a prison environment. 

It is also true that in a prison, the only way to abide the equivalent of the ‘stay at home’ advice is to physically isolate people in their cells.

In 2018, we released a report exploring the physical and psychological impact of isolation in prison settings. One family member of a young man who had experienced prolonged periods of isolation told us that 'the longer he is locked down, the more mentally disturbed he will become. He will never want to leave there because he will be so scared of getting out.'

It is not humane to subject people to this in any circumstances.

Although no two prison systems are directly comparable, countries including Italy, Spain, Iran, and Turkey have already taken steps to release some prisoners. Some US states are doing the same thing. 

Recently, New South Wales and the Northern Territory took steps to do the same, and we wait to see how those jurisdictions proceed.

Low-level offenders who are nearing the end of their sentences and do not pose a threat to community safety as well as people on remand, older prisoners, people with chronic health problems, women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should all be considered for early release should they choose to accept the option.

Time is of the essence. Staff members in prisons in both New South Wales and Queensland have already tested positive to COVID-19. It is not hard to see that a breakout could have catastrophic consequences for prisoners, staff and their loved ones. Taking what we see as a common sense approach now may save lives.

Taking proactive steps now will also improve the lives of people working in the prison system — fewer numbers mean less risk and an enhanced capacity to support others. 

We acknowledge that these are difficult and challenging decisions and nobody has all the answers. In this complex environment where every choice has serious consequences, we also need to consider how we protect the health and safety of the vast majority of prisoners who would remain inside and how we best support more vulnerable post-release prisoners back in the community. 

It’s clear that ensuring people exiting prison have access to housing, and supports to manage mental illness and substance abuse problems is vital.

Community organisations must play a role in supporting people to comply with rules around curfews and home detention, to navigate the currently overburdened social security system, and ultimately to be safe and healthy. There is also an urgent need to look at reinstating sentencing options including home detention and suspended sentences, where they no longer exist, such as in Victoria.

This fast-moving new frontier is having unprecedented impact on all parts of society, including our most marginalised. Our justice systems must act urgently to implement solutions. We simply can’t afford to wait.



Julie EdwardsJulie Edwards is the CEO of Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Prison wall barbed wire fence with blue sky background (Photo by josefkubes/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Julie Edwards, COVID-19, prisons, justice



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Existing comments

Thank you, Julie, for that comprehensive analysis and plea for action. Time is indeed of the essence - people are already dying in UK prisons. The call is now with the Victorian Government, to respond to the angels if they’re better nature, in the interests of safety for the whole community.

Denis Fitzgerald | 09 April 2020  

Thanks Julie for this clear challenge to do what is both pragmatic in terms of public health and moral in terms of the prison population and the justice issues involved. I would like to add a corresponding argument for the release of people in immigration detention centres. There are about 1400 who are locked up in really cramped conditions in several different locations in Australia. If an outbreak occurred in one of these centres it would be impossible to contain.

Brigid Arthur | 09 April 2020  

Immigration Detention Centres: an opportunity for leaders to save face and now do the right thing.

John Ormond KENNEDY | 09 April 2020  

After the death of an inmate at Sing Sing prison, US Attorney General William Barr urged officials to consider home detention, if appropriate. Barr stated: “Controlling weight should be given to public safety…COVID-19 presents real risks, but so does allowing violent gang members and child predators to roam free.” The New York Post reported that thousands of prisoners are using Covid-19 fears to push for early release: “Everyone from killers, drug traffickers and gang members to mobsters, fraudsters and accused rapists are making a bid to get out of the clink.” In Massachusetts, one released prisoner was 54-year-old Glenn Christie who had been convicted of child rape and indecent assault on a child under 14 years of age. It’s a contentious topic. Current restriction mean that many people feel like prisoners in their own homes, while a paedophile rapist is given his freedom.

Ross Howard | 09 April 2020  

As long ago as 1880 or thereabouts the new sciences of bacteriology and virology realised that disease transmission via droplet exhalation of infectious organisms was related to overcrowding, building/population density and lack of natural ventilation in housing/town design. In England, this resulted in the enactment of the first public health regulations in the world which addressed these risk factors. As a result the incidence of respiratory infectious disease and particularly the killer scourge of those times, tuberculosis, fell remarkably when the new health ordinances were applied. As with all things, however, the lessons learned were ignored in the quest for ever increasing wealth for the developers/builders, led by the USA, with the introduction of high density living designed to squeeze as much income production into one skyscraper/high rise development on a postage stamp sized piece of land as possible. New York is the prime example of this greed and Sydney rushes to emulate the same lunacy. What we need (amongst many other changes) after this pandemic is a return to the principles of living in well aerated communities with minimal human crowding. When the great nurse Florence Nightingale established these same principals in the army hospital at Scutari during the Crimean War in the late 19th century the death rate from infection fell from 50% to 10%. Such is the effect of overcrowding and the necessity to avoid it. The government has done the right thing to date and after less than a month people are clamouring for the "human right" to return to crowded living again for no other reason than the pursuit of money/income both at individual and corporate levels. Greed and self-interest always wins out over temperance and truth.

john frawley | 09 April 2020  

Thank you Julie. This is clear, well researched and presented with compassion and common sense.

Marie Bourke | 10 April 2020  

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