Call to release 'at risk' NSW prisoners
The United States has considered prison releases. File image Credit: Pat Sutphin/AP
Prisoner advocates are demanding the most vulnerable inmates in NSW be released to prevent “chaos” in the state’s jails during the coronavirus crisis.
Justice Action coordinator Brett Collins on Thursday argued the riots seen in Italy’s prisons would be replicated in Australia if authorities couldn’t prevent COVID-19 outbreaks.
“It is urgent to get those older prisoners at high risk of dying out - and nobody should be sharing cells to ensure proper social distancing,” Mr Collins said.
“This is the time to act, before the infection gets into the jail, because inevitably it will.”
The prisoner advocate said panic could set in if staff shortages caused by illness prevented inmates from doing outdoor exercise, for example.
“If that happens there will be riots in the jails, the police will come over and there will be chaos.”
Pandemic hot-zone Iran has released about 85,000 people from jail, including political prisoners, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Some US states including Ohio and California have also released some non-violent inmates.
But a Corrective Services NSW spokeswoman has told AAP early releases to reduce prison populations are not being considered.
“No, we will not be doing what Iran has done,” she said, adding contingency plans were in place to protect staff and inmates.
Community Restorative Centre director Mindy Sotiri says the COVID-19 health crisis is unprecedented.
Her organisation provides support services for inmates but it’s not known how prisoners will connect with external providers during the pandemic.
Relatives are also worried.
“Many family members are calling me increasingly concerned about what will happen to vulnerable people, especially the elderly, in prisons if coronavirus does break out,” Dr Sotiri said.
There have been no confirmed cases in any of the state’s 38 facilities to date but AAP understands Corrective Services NSW (CSNSW) is preparing for an eventual outbreak.
The department on Thursday announced it had set up a central command centre to coordinate its response to the pandemic.
The new command post will operate seven days a week and liaise with interstate and international counterparts on how to prevent or manage any outbreak.
“Please be assured nothing is being left to chance,” CSNSW Commissioner Peter Severin said in a statement.
“We continue to follow the expert advice from NSW Health and are working closely with Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network to minimise risks for staff as well as inmates.”
Visitors to the state’s 38 jails have been banned until March 22 when tighter procedures - including health screenings - will be implemented.
CSNSW will also be trying to reduce inmate movement and visits where possible.
Some 600 tablet computers will be rolled out across the network to facilitate video calls in place of social visits.
The use of audiovisual links for legal meetings and court appearances will also be increased.