As reports continue of COVID-19 cases occurring in prisons, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) has called on the Victorian Government to take urgent action to prevent deaths in custody.

VALS has called on the Andrews Government to release some prisoners from detention to lower the number of people in danger of COVID-19 infection.

VALS CEO, Nerita Waight, said because Indigenous people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, the spread of COVID-19 inside correctional facilities would have a disproportionate impact on them.

“Now is the time for the Government to demonstrate a genuine commitment to ending the ill-treatment and deaths of Aboriginal people in custody, immediately and responsibly releasing people from detention” said Waight.

Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet reports Indigenous Australians are more often and more severely affected by respiratory illnesses than non-Indigenous Australians, such as influenza. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are three times more likely to be admitted to hospital for influenza and pneumonia.

VALS said the speed of a COVID-19 spread in prison populations makes the problem an urgent one.

Dr Lesley Russell, Adjunct Associate Professor at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the University of Sydney, said reactive solutions to COVID-19 cases inside prisons are less effective.

“I think waiting for a case to show up before anything happened is already seven days too late,” said Dr Russell.

Dr Russell said although releasing people might help to reduce prison population density, those released need to have safe housing to go to.

“If you get people who have minimal risk out; yes, that relieves the crowd,” she said.

“[But] we know anyway, outside of Coronavirus, that you can’t just dump people into the community and expect them to manage.”

“It would be effective if people who are released have a safe environment to go to where they can isolate if needed.”

As new COVID-19 cases remain in the hundreds in Victoria, the danger of a Coronavirus spread in prisons is very real. According to the New York Times, in the USA eight of the top ten Coronavirus hotspots are prisons and jails.

The Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) confirmed that as of Monday, there were 45 cases of COVID-19 in Victoria’s Aboriginal community.

Since July 21, Corrections Victoria has locked down eight prisons after small numbers of staff and inmates tested positive to COVID-19. No personal visits have been allowed to inmates since March 20. While in lockdown, adult prisoners can only leave their cells for phone calls, although young people in detention can leave their cells briefly for exercise.

Melbourne Assessment Prison was the last prison in temporary lockdown to facilitate prisoners’ isolation transfers. The prison’s lockdown has since been lifted.

By Sarah Smit