Government and courts urged to release prisoners and grant bail to minimise COVID-19 risk
17th Aug 2021
Government and courts are being urged to activate legislation passed in NSW last year to reduce the number of people in prison, following the impact of COVID-19 at both Bathurst Correctional Centre and Silverwater Jail in recent days.
“Despite some prisoners and prison staff now being vaccinated, COVID-19 in prisons could still spread rapidly and will be hard to stop once it takes hold,” said Mr Greg Barns SC, criminal justice spokesperson for the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA). “The prison system needs higher rates of vaccination and access to rapid testing, but the number of people in the system also needs to be reduced.
“It is a breach of duty of care for the NSW Government not to remove prisoners from the probability of infection. We are particularly concerned about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities given the high rates of First Nations people in NSW prisons.
“Courts need to take the risk of infection in prison into account and show greater leniency with regard to bail. In the current circumstances, courts should not refuse bail for non-violent offences unless there has been demonstratable recent recidivism.
“Health experts around the world are recommending the responsible release of selected prisoners to reduce over-crowding and enable some physical distancing. This can be achieved by reducing unnecessary admissions and expediting prison release for select, low-risk offenders.
“NSW has the legislation in place to enable this to happen – it just needs to be activated.
“Prison lockdowns cannot be the solution. Lockdown means solitary confinement, no education, rehabilitation programs or family visits, and an increased risk of mental harm. This creates an increasingly intolerable and unstable environment within prisons.
“Reducing prison populations is the most effective way to avoid a serious outbreak of COVID-19 in our prison system and protect inmates as well as prison staff and the broader community. Prisoners have the same rights to health and safety as everyone else.”