Desperate times call for desperate measures in prisons

8 April 2020

One of the recommendations requires the limited release of Indigenous people as a top priority.

Hundreds of criminal justice experts have written to Australian governments, calling for drastic and unprecedented measures to avert a COVID-19 outbreak in prisons and youth detention centres around the country.

The recommendations build on their first open letter last month, which has prompted initial and planned reforms to the criminal justice system in some jurisdictions, including NSW, the ACT and the Northern Territory. 

More than 400 experts and organisations have signed the second letter, with five recommendations for governments including widespread screening for COVID-19 and the immediate hospitalisation of any prisoner or detainee who has symptoms of the virus.  

Professor Lorana Bartels from The Australian National University (ANU), Professor Thalia Anthony from the University of Technology Sydney and Professor Felicity Gerry QC of Deakin University and Crockett Chambers in Melbourne have coordinated the second letter, in consultation with the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, Keeping Women Out of Prison Coalition and other institutions. 

Nerita Waight, co-Chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and signatory to the letter, said Indigenous deaths in custody from COVID-19 must be prevented. 

"One of the recommendations requires the limited release of Indigenous people as a top priority," Ms Waight said. 

"Governments should release Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from prisons and youth detention, due to our high vulnerability to the severe and critical impacts of COVID-19."  

Professor Gerry said many people are terrified that COVID-19 will spread rapidly in prison and youth detention centres in the absence of stringent public health measures.  

"The number of people in prisons and youth detention centres needs to be reduced urgently, through suitable release measures," Professor Gerry said. 

"Some courts have shown compassion in bail and sentencing applications, but governments need to step up to ensure that prisoners are not unduly exposed to COVID-19." 

Professor Bartels said prisons and detention centres have provided little transparency about how COVID-19 is being managed.  

"Families and advocates for adults and young people in correctional facilities have been shut out, adding to the tensions among prisoners. Current practices are placing the lives of prisoners and prison staff at risk," she said. 

Professor Anthony said Australia lags behind the rest of the world in introducing proactive measures to shield prisons against the worst effects of COVID-19.  

"We have seen deaths in overcrowded prisons in the US and the UK, when immediate action has not been taken to address the coronavirus pandemic. 

"NSW introduced prisoner release legislation last month, which is a promising start, but we'd like to see some improvements to this legislation and other jurisdictions need to step up their response to this rapidly evolving health emergency." 

A copy of the open letter and signatures is available here: