As COVID-19 enters prisons in New South Wales, justice advocates are calling for the release and increased support of Indigenous inmates.

Currently, two prisons in the State have active cases of COVD-19: Silverwater Correctional Complex and Bathurst Correctional Centre.

On Tuesday, four inmates at the Silverwater Correctional Complex tested positive to COVID-19. The four inmates were tested as they came into custody and upon their positive result, were placed in a 14-day quarantine.

Staff who interacted with the positive inmates are being tested and are quarantining until they receive a negative result.

On August 7, a 27-year-old man was arrested in Dubbo and remanded in custody at Bathurst Correctional Centre. As part of Justice Health & Forensic Mental Health Unit (JH&FMHN) processes, he was tested upon entry.

On August 9, the man was granted bail and released from custody into the community. Two days later his test returned positive.

Corrective Services NSW told NIT that they are “not in a position to confirm the whereabouts or movement of the offender post bail”.

Bathurst Correctional Centre. Photo via Facebook.

On August 13, “a fresh custody inmate” in the prison tested positive to COVID-19 whilst in single cell quarantine. CNSW said that there is “no evidence” linking the positive inmate to the 27-year-old who was released.

No more cases have been identified at Bathurst prison.

Corrective Services NSW released the 27-year-old who tested positive despite strict public health orders which note individuals must self-isolate whilst waiting for test results.

However, Corrective Services NSW said they cannot “legally detain an individual once bail has been granted”.

Bathurst is situated in central west NSW, where COVID-19 cases are escalating by the hour.

Community leaders pushed the desperate need for quarantining options with Walgett’s Dharriwaa Elders Group, releasing a statement asking for “accommodation and support for people leaving prison to quarantine while waiting for test results”.

NSW Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Treaty David Harris said whilst Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations are working hard on the ground, they need the support from “Government at all levels”.

“It seemed incredible that a person was released into the community without having their COVID test results known, particularly when there was no real ability to isolate,” he said.

“These preventable lapses of protocol are placing vulnerable communities at risk and there seems no accountability.”

“After all these years there seems to still be a serious lack of cultural awareness by [Corrective Services NSW] and it raises the question of why that still occurs?”

According to Aboriginal justice organisation Deadly Connections, inmates are being isolated for extended periods of time “without access to support, programs, employments or visitors”.

Deadly Connections also noted opportunities for vaccinations in NSW prisons are limited.

Currently, AstraZeneca is the only vaccine available and is being declined by many inmates due to underlying health conditions and inadequate access to hospitals.

Deadly Connections, the National Justice Project, Justice Action, public health expert and Wiradjuri woman Associate Professor Megan Williams and Law Professor Thalia Anthony are calling for the release of inmates, for Pfizer to be made available in prisons and for three-day rapid antigen tests for all corrections staff to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading through prisons.

They also want to see reduced prison terms for inmates and increased funding from Aboriginal originations working in justice.

“The COVID virus doesn’t stop at prison walls, in fact it thrives in places where many people are forced to live in confined unhygienic spaces, places like prisons,” said George Newhouse, National Justice Project CEO and Senior Solicitor.

“Before we see a humanitarian crisis unfold in Australia’s prisons, the NSW Government must take urgent action to protect people in prisons from the virus.”

Deadly Connections CEO and Wiradjuri woman Carly Stanley said continuing to detain Aboriginal people in custody could see an increased risk of deaths in custody.

“Governments should provide resources for adequate support and safe housing for people to be released into the community. Deadly Connections is committed to providing support upon release,” she said.

By Rachael Knowles