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Prisoners need action now facing COVID-19

  • 09 April 2020
  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.

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