COVID-19 in detention centres & prisons: A potential human rights catastrophe

24th Mar 2020

Proposed NSW legislation that will allow for the early release of some prisoners is welcome, and similar legislation should be introduced in all other states and territories as a matter of urgency, says the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

“The risk of an outbreak of COVID-19 in a prison or detention centre is extremely serious,” said Mr Andrew Christopoulos, National President, ALA. “This is potentially a human rights disaster for Australia, and governments must act urgently.

“People in prison and immigration detention are at extreme risk of contracting the virus simply because they are detained.

“We must remember that asylum seekers in immigration detention have committed no offence, and it is cruel to keep them locked up in close confinement when we are all being instructed to keep our distance from others.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) released new guidelines yesterday outlining how to manage the risk of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention which highlights the challenges of infection control in such environments.

“In prisons, hand sanitiser is not allowed and it is impossible to maintain any distance from others, particularly at meal times,” said Mr Christopoulos.

“Many people in prison are disadvantaged, with limited education, mental illness and impoverished backgrounds, and we know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are over-represented in prison. To keep these vulnerable people locked up and at risk at this time is unnecessarily harsh.

“Governments across Australia must urgently release as many non-violent remandees as possible into the community on bail, and release older non-violent prisoners, young offenders serving time for minor offences and others who have poor physical health into home detention arrangements. 

“A failure to release select people from detention will result in deaths, serious harm and an increasingly intolerable environment.”

Tags: Human rights Indigenous rights Prisoners Detention Immigration