Under the pretence of Covid-19 precautions, prisoners are being locked in cells without access to communication, fresh clothes, soap or sanitary products. By Wendy Bacon.

Prisoners suffering under punitive Covid-19 measures

The Silverwater Correctional Complex in NSW.
The Silverwater Correctional Complex in NSW.
Credit: Richard Milnes / Alamy

This is part one of a two-part series.

Bree Hickson is a woman of 40 living in Western Sydney. Late last year, after months of lockdown and looking forward to a relaxed summer with her two daughters, she found herself lost in a string of punishing incarcerations for more than two months. For most of that time she was unable to speak with a family member or a lawyer.

As she first tells me her story, she breaks down. Her experiences are still raw. In early November 2021, she was arrested in possession of a stolen microwave. She was refused bail and sent from a police lock-up to a transitional prison, where she stayed for six nights without a shower, unable to leave her cell. As part of what was apparently a Covid-19 protocol, food was handed through a hatch.

From there she went to Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre, part of the Silverwater Correctional Complex, where she sat all day in reception with several other women. Later, she was issued with two sets of prison greens and locked in a quarantine cell for 14 days with one other woman, again as part of a Covid-19 protocol. During this time, she was allowed out of the cell for only 15 minutes a day and had no outside exercise.

After a fortnight she was transferred to Dillwynia Women’s Correctional Centre where she spent another seven days in a cell with just one other person. When she arrived, one of her two pairs of underpants was missing. There was a shortage of underpants so she was told to make do. There were no tampons available for anyone who needed them. For two days, she was again unable to leave her cell at all. She did not go outside for another five days. Food was brought to her cell twice a day, at 10.30am and 2.30pm. The second delivery was “dinner”, which could be eaten then or cold later.

Double vaccinated, she says she was only tested twice for Covid-19 during her two months in custody. There were other serious health issues. Hickson is diabetic, yet on several days she did not receive her insulin. She became anxious when she started experiencing symptoms of hypoglycaemia. She felt disoriented and had pins and needles in her arms and legs.

Even when she was no longer in isolation, the prison continued to go into lockdowns. For many months, all face-to-face visits have been cancelled in New South Wales prisons. Her first booking for an audiovisual visit was cancelled. She did finally manage to have a screen visit with her daughters.

She returned to court in mid-January and was released on the basis of time she had already served. If granted bail initially, it’s unlikely she would have spent any time in custody.

At the heart of Hickson’s story, and that of thousands of other prisoners, lies a question: When do actions taken in the name of health precautions become a breach of duty of care, a risk to health and a violation of human rights?

In recent weeks, The Saturday Paper has spoken with lawyers, prisoners, the families of prisoners and prison advocates. Most people prefer not to use their names as they fear repercussions for themselves or their clients. Over and over they have told stories of privation and arbitrary isolation. Mothers and partners desperately worried about the whereabouts of family members, some of whom suffer from serious mental illness, cut off from normal, approved channels of communication. Prisoners moved suddenly without their meagre possessions, feeling angry and victimised by a system rigged towards punishment and ill prepared to deal with a contagious virus.

On top of this, prisoners are already more likely to suffer from underlying health conditions including asthma, the effects of smoking and serious mental illness. Many prisons are overcrowded, operating above 100 per cent capacity, making social distancing difficult. While only 3.3 per cent of the Australian population is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, more than 30 per cent of prisoners are First Nations people; they are even more likely than the rest of the prison population to experience poor physical and mental health.

NSW has by far the largest prison system, with 12,300 prisoners, 38 per cent of whom are on remand and have not been sentenced. In Victoria there are 6000 prisoners, an extraordinary 43 per cent of whom have not been sentenced.

From the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, prisoners have been recognised by international experts as a vulnerable group that would suffer more severely if infections spread. For this reason, restrictions were regarded as justified but relatively temporary. Two years later, restrictions continue and have become even more severe. There is no end in sight. Face-to-face visits with families are suspended indefinitely. Replacement audiovisual visits and even phone calls are intermittent and often unexpectedly cancelled. Psychological services, education and work programs have halted. Thousands of prisoners are locked in isolation cells, many with no time outside for weeks. Lawyers struggle to get access to clients. Many prisoners in remand will not have their cases resolved this year. All of these actions are being taken in the name of keeping prisoners safe.

This week, a spokesperson for Corrective Services NSW explained it this way: “The safety of staff and inmates is our top priority as we continue to follow NSW Health public health orders and the expert advice from our healthcare provider Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network. Like schools, hospitals and transport services, operations in both public and private NSW prisons have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it is a credit to the hard work of staff – as well as diligent planning – that prisons have continued to operate without compromising the security, safety and health of everyone under our care.”

This last point is contested. While the situation is uneven and constantly changing, the picture that emerges is of a NSW system in crisis rather than a safe, well-planned operation.

Staff are undoubtedly under pressure but Corrective Services’ description contrasts with correspondence tendered in a NSW Supreme Court hearing last week in which a senior Corrective Services staff member, Rani Young, described a situation in the Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre, also a part of the Silverwater Correctional Complex, where hundreds of prisoners infected with Covid-19 are currently being held. Young’s correspondence noted that the Omicron variant “continues to have a significant impact” on the operations of NSW prisons. Hundreds of staff could not attend work because of Covid-19 or related issues. “These staff absences impact directly on [Corrective Services’] ability to implement expected correctional centre services and routines including transporting inmates for court appearances.”

Justice Hament Dhanji noted that the accused person applying for bail had told his lawyer that he was “confined to his cell for periods beyond the [14 days] that was required.” There were difficulties for lawyers in getting access to their clients. The judge decided he couldn’t predict how long these conditions would continue and released the prisoner on very strict bail conditions.

Despite wide and continuing lockdowns, Covid-19 has spread rapidly in prisons since December. According to the Justice Health website, in the past three weeks alone there have been more than 1000 new cases, not including staff. Last week the figures showed a test positivity rate of more than 50 per cent. After a query from The Saturday Paper, the graphic was changed to explain the number is only for PCR tests. No information about rapid antigen tests is available.

The Justice Health website claims “a major vaccination program has quickly brought vaccination rates in line with the general population”. But this statement appears not to be true. Only 81.7 per cent of prisoners have had two shots of vaccine, compared with 94.2 per cent of the over-16 general population. The Saturday Paper asked NSW Health to explain this discrepancy but at the time of publication had received no response.

Vaccination figures for the thousands of prisoners in private prisons are not included in NSW Health figures because they are regarded as commercial property. No figures are published for boosters, which are available in some NSW prisons but not others. A lawyer whose middle-aged, diabetic First Nations client was concerned he had not received his second dose on time has written several times to NSW Health on his behalf seeking the date of his first vaccination, but months later is yet to receive an answer.

In late January, two prisoners in their 40s died over three days at Junee Correctional Centre, a private prison for more than 1000 prisoners run by the global corporation GEO Group. One of the prisoners had tested positive for Covid-19 and died in his cell the next day. These two recent deaths follow coronial reports issued in 2021 into the deaths of two First Nations men who died in Junee prison several years ago. Both reports identified serious deficiencies in the care provided to the men. There are calls for a public inquiry into Junee prison, but so far the NSW government has said it will follow regular procedures for coronial inquiries, which can take up to six years to complete.

Currently, the NSW prison system is struggling to provide basic hygiene. Lawyers say prisoners who are testing negative for Covid-19 have been put in cells with positive-testing prisoners or made to enter cells that have not been cleaned after being occupied by a sick prisoner. One lawyer described evidence of stale vomit in a cell.

A prisoner who had not seen sunlight for five weeks was isolated in Junee prison before testing positive. He was then transferred to Silverwater Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre, where he was without a change of clothes for nearly a week. He says he has been refused Panadol for a headache and, although he has a television, he has no books or any other forms of stimulation.

Several other prisoners have described how they have been left with no change of clothes, one for 12 days. That person, who describes himself as suffering from anxiety, was left for days with no television, books or other stimulation. Lawyers have also received information from Covid-positive clients who have not been supplied with soap, toothpaste or shampoo or who have gone without a shower for days.

As Premier Dominic Perrottet announces the further relaxing of restrictions in NSW, this is the situation inside the state’s prisons, and elsewhere: the virus is spreading through inmates, and the attempts to contain it are ineffective, arbitrary and punitive. 

Additional research by Lila Pierce.

Read part two: NSW fails to parole low-risk prisoners despite Covid-19 provision.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 19, 2022 as "Punishing regimen".

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Wendy Bacon is a journalist. She was a professor of journalism at the University of Technology Sydney.

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