Prison advocates call on Government to take more action to prevent COVID-19 outbreak in jails  ABCNews  Political reporter Alexandra Beech         6 May 2020

A silhouetted corrections officer walks down a cell corridor in a prison.

The Supreme Court of Victoria handed down a decision finding that circumstances in prison were unhygienic

National Cabinet has agreed on guidelines for how to manage COVID-19 in Australia's jails, but prisoner advocacy groups say having inmates behind bars during the pandemic is like giving them the death penalty.

Jails have been epicentres for the virus in the United States and some US states have begun to release prisoners to try to stop the spread.

Prisoners' advocate Debbie Kilroy said an outbreak in an Australian jail was inevitable and would be devastating.

"We don't have a death penalty in this country, but this will be a death penalty once it's going viral inside a prison," she said.

Key points:

         States and territories agree PPE should be distributed to prisons if there is enough to spare should an outbreak occur

         Prison advocates liken the presence of COVID-19 in jail to an outbreak on a cruise ship

         The Government agrees to develop "safe travel plans" for newly-released Indigenous prisoners

Ms Kilroy is a former prisoner turned lawyer and the founder of female prisoners' advocacy group Sisters Inside.

She said the inmates they've spoken with are distressed and don't even have enough soap to protect themselves from the virus.

On Tuesday, National Cabinet agreed to manage COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons in line with the "Communicable Diseases Network Australia National Guidelines for the Prevention, Control and Public Health Management of COVID-19 Outbreaks in Correction and Detention Facilities in Australia".

The states and territories agreed that providing Personal Protective Equipment should be a priority, once more supplies became available and if coronavirus cases were detected in facilities.

National Cabinet also agreed to develop "safe travel plans" for newly-released Indigenous prisoners, which could include self-isolation accommodation and secure transport to designated communities.

"The language, when I read that, is more about window dressing and marketing for people out here in the community to think that people in prison will be protected," Ms Kilroy said.

"When we have a prison thatís in lockdown, which all prisons are, and the prison officers and staff walking in and out are bringing the virus into the prison, it'll be spread just like weíve seen on those cruise ships."

Ms Kilroy called for independent boards to be given the power to release some prisoners during the coronavirus pandemic.

University of Technology Sydney law professor, Thalia Anthony, said that might include putting people in home detention or isolating inmates in hotel rooms.

"In New South Wales there has been, I guess, the most positive and assertive response, which has been to introduce laws to release people from prisons to take off that overcrowding pressure," Professor Anthony said.

"Those laws, though, havenít been applied, in the sense that we've seen no systemic release of people in NSW.

"We're encouraging all states and territories to introduce similar legislation but also act on that legislation.

"We're really concerned, now that restrictions are easing, that there'll be a surge and it will affect places like prisons."

Since the pandemic began, Professor Anthony has helped coordinate two open letters from legal experts to state and territory governments calling for urgent reforms to protect the prison population.

She said the guidelines that National Cabinet has now endorsed have been circulating since March.

Failing in their duty of care

"Last week, the Supreme Court of Victoria handed down a decision finding that Corrections were failing in their duty of care to implement these guidelines and that circumstances were unhygienic," Professor Anthony said.

"I think what the Government has done is simply reiterate guidelines that are not working."

The United Workers Union secretary in the Northern Territory, Erina Early, said prison officers were also worried.

"We've been very fortunate there hasn't been any outbreak here in the Northern Territory in corrections, because predominantly most of the prisoners are First Nations prisoners," Ms Early said.

"It has been a big concern for the correctional officers but they have got very good control measures in case there is an outbreak."

What the experts are saying about coronavirus:

                     Economic recovery committee looks set to push for a gas-fired future

                     Immunity passports might create a perverse incentive for individuals to seek out infection

Ms Early said she was pleased National Cabinet was looking into the matter but she wanted to see more personal protective gear distributed to correctional facilities.

"We would like to see it be stepped up," she said.

"Prison officers, similar to the nurses, the doctors, Aboriginal health practitioners, et cetera, they're a top priority and it needs to be the same priority for corrections."

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