Urgent calls to release non-violent offenders are mounting as New South Wales prisons are locked down to combat COVID-19 spread.

As of Friday, there were almost 100 confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported at Parklea Correctional Centre. Silverwater Correctional Facility has recorded 50 confirmed cases of the virus and two prison officers tested positive at Bathurst Correctional Centre.

On Monday, a statewide prison lockdown was announced to control the outbreaks.

“Obviously it’s a complex operational environment. People are living in close quarters, obviously people are coming in to work in those prisons, COVID can be introduced. We also have high turnover,” said NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant.

Dr Chant expressed her concerned for inmates and noted that vaccination was “the key” to containing further outbreak.

A spokesperson for Corrective Services NSW told NIT they’re following the expert advice of NSW Health and Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network (JH&FMHN), and have introduced rapid antigen testing across the State for both staff and inmates.

The spokesperson said all inmates that had been transferred from Parklea prior to the lockdown were isolated and tested for COVID-19. All have returned negative results, along with 29 staff members.

“All inmates are managed in quarantine for 14 days before being cleared by JH&FMHN to move into the general population. They are tested by JH&FMHN for COVID-19 when they arrive in custody and on day 12 of their quarantine,” the spokesperson said.

“The [Corrective Services NSW] COVID Command Post works with NSW Health to support the contact tracing process in custodial facilities to identify anyone who has had contact with a positive case.”

Despite Dr Chant noting vaccination is the key to containing further spread, Guardian Australia reported that vaccines earmarked for NSW inmates were redirected to HSC students in Sydney — despite inmates being prioritised in the rollout.

The State prisoner vaccination program was stalled in July.

With the large population of NSW inmates unvaccinated and COVID-19 entering prisons, justice advocates are pushing for non-violent offenders to be released.

At a press conference on Thursday, NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge said the vaccination rates of inmates currently in NSW are “less than 24 per cent” despite the government “being on notice about the vulnerabilities of the population for at least 18 months”.

“There are more than 12,000 people in NSW prisons … many with highly vulnerable health and conditions,” he said.

“There is only one solution on the table at the moment with the low vaccination rates, and that is … urgently release non-violent offenders from the prison system under parole or supervision.”

In 2020, changes in legislation gave the Corrective Services NSW Commissioner power to conditionally release low-risk and vulnerable inmates to parole. As of Monday, no inmates have been released.

“There are no immediate plans to release anyone using this emergency measure, but if it does become necessary it will be done on a case-by-case basis and community safety will always be our number one priority,” said a Corrective Services NSW spokesperson. 

Mr Shoebridge described the decision as a “recipe for disaster”.

“We know how vulnerable our Aboriginal members are in community, and when they are in custody that is exacerbated through the roof,” said Deadly Connections’ Keenan Mundine, whose brother was admitted to prison four weeks ago.

“They have limited access to mental health support, limited access to their families … they are locked away in their cells [without] access to hygiene.

“My biggest concern is my brother, his wellbeing and how he is going to cope if he is infected and locked away.”

Justice advocates Dr Thalia Anthony and Brett Collins from Justice Action also addressed the media, raising concerns about deaths in custody.

“We fear that these people are sitting ducks, what is happening is a death sentence for people in prison … We are putting [the NSW Government] on notice. We don’t want to be standing here when there is a death in custody,” said Dr Anthony.

“The government must act now; the Commissioner cannot hide behind any terms about holding people account for their crimes. This is a government crime,” said Collins.

“Any death is on the Government’s hands because this was foreseeable. They must release prisoners now, otherwise they will have deaths in their hands.”

By Rachael Knowles