A visitation ban in NSW prisons during the coronavirus crisis has cut off a key entry point for drugs into these facilities, but with so many inmates struggling with opioid dependence, tensions are rising. By Mahmood Fazal.

Prison visitation ban stirs tension

Hefner is succinct in his description. “The Covid situation in jail is disgusting,” he says.

The 22-year-old, who was recently released from Silverwater Correctional Complex, says that since visits were suspended across New South Wales prisons on March 16 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, tensions have been high.

“They’d lock us in at least three of seven days, every week: 24-hour lockdowns,” he says.

Prisoners say that within weeks of the visitation ban, serious incidents broke out at Wellington, Cessnock and Goulburn prisons. Last week, in Lithgow, 12 prisoners were injured in a brawl. In the Mid North Coast Correctional Centre near Kempsey, a prison officer was held hostage for several hours.

“The protests have been going on because we’re being told they’re stopping visitations until the end of the year,” says one prisoner currently on remand at the Macquarie Correctional Centre in Wellington near Dubbo. “It’s been tense. There’s been fights everywhere. One of the pods got burned down because they’ve been locking them in a lot.”

The visitation ban is part of a co-ordinated effort across Corrective Services NSW’s 38 correctional facilities, which currently house some 14,000 inmates and employ 7500 staff. While some countries have responded to the Covid-19 threat by releasing low-level offenders, Australia has instead tried to create “bubbles” inside its prisons.

“All staff and inmates are screened on entry to a prison to identify those with symptoms of Covid-19,” says a spokeswoman for Corrective Services NSW. “We are following the expert advice from NSW Health and are working closely with Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network.”

According to Corrective Services, new inmates are quarantined for 14 days and those who show symptoms of the virus are isolated. Prison transfers have been limited to urgent medical escorts and transporting inmates from court to prisons.

But even as restrictions ease across NSW, its prisons remain in a state of lockdown.

“Virtual visits” offer those incarcerated a window into their family homes, but there are drawbacks. “It’s nice to see the kids running around and the dogs,” says one prisoner from a maximum-security facility, “but the online visits are less than half the time of a visit in jail, only 20 minutes.”

All of this has built to a “red-hot” situation, says the maximum-security inmate. He blames the tensions on overcrowding. “There’s boys on remand doing three-outs in a two-out cell. Blokes are sleeping on the floors; it’s a shambles,” he says.

But the visit ban has also highlighted the opioid crisis playing out in NSW prisons, stemming the flow of drugs into facilities across the state. Without in-person visits, April recorded 135 incidents of intercepted contraband in mail intended for inmates, up from 22 each month, on average, last year.

At John Morony Correctional Complex in Windsor, officers found strips of the opioid buprenorphine concealed in the seam of a cardboard envelope with a fake return address. In Bathurst Correctional Centre, staff discovered 10 strips taped to a greeting card that read “Love is in the Air”.

Buprenorphine, sold in Australia as Subutex and Suboxone, is a prescription drug that is widely used as an alternative treatment to methadone for heroin or other opioid dependence. Cheap, effective and considered easy to smuggle, it has become one of the most ubiquitous drugs inside NSW prisons.

According to a Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network spokesperson, as of April 30 this year, 1236 adults in custody in NSW are receiving opioid substitution treatment (OST). But prisoners estimate as many as 80 per cent of inmates are using the drug.

“There’s a huge percentage of drug users in the prison system who depend on the drug to get through jail,” says Hefner. “Some people can’t cope in jail without the drug. It’s a lonely place and your mind is your worst enemy inside.”


The rise of opioids in Australia’s prisons stretches back to the 1990s.

Vu Pham spent 19 consecutive birthdays as an inmate in the NSW prison system. “I was first incarcerated in 1997,” he says. “In those days, most people that came into the system had to go cold turkey.”

A former heroin user, he first experienced the methadone program in Silverwater.

“They were trying to get as many people to sign on to the program as they could,” he says. “They were handing it out like lollies.”

In the late 1990s, concern within prisons about the spread of blood-borne viral infections, such as HIV and hepatitis C, led to a rapid expansion in the number of correctional institutions offering opioid substitution therapies.

“There was a lot of people who weren’t using heroin who jumped on the program, just to get a high,” says Pham, who now works with youth in Cabramatta. “Man, we’re in prison, what do you do? You’re desperate to escape the reality of your situation, so everyone was like, ‘Why not?’ Two decades have passed and they’re still on it because of that day.”

When Corrections NSW first introduced buprenorphine, it was in tablet form.

“People were diverting it. They’d just put it on foil and smoke it,” says Pham. “Then they changed it to the strips. But then they started to divert the strips, too. They would lace their mouth with bread and when the nurse puts it on their tongue, they’d roll it up. Then they would smoke it or shoot it.”

Inmates on the buprenorphine program are often pressured by others to divert their dose, and doing so can also be a financial boon.

One strip of “bupe” can be broken down into 10 hits, each sold for between $50 and $100 inside. There have been reports of recently released prisoners, who are on the buprenorphine program, breaching their parole to be able to continue selling inside.

“There’s a huge drug issue in the jails that no one wants to talk about,” says one current employee of Corrective Services, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “And it’s because we’re giving something out for free on the outside that’s worth hundreds of dollars in the jails.”

“One strip is worth $500,” says Pham. “I knew someone that was getting 36 strips a week in jail. Do the math.”

Corrections NSW appears to be trying to address the buprenorphine problem in its prisons by introducing a new opioid substitution treatment.

“They’re trying to get everyone to sign on to a new program – it’s called Buvidal,” says the inmate currently on remand in Macquarie Correctional Centre. “We have to go back every month for an injection, so you can’t divert it.”

“Previously, inmates were provided an under-the-tongue treatment in the form of a film, which was required daily,” a Corrective Services NSW spokeswoman says. “The new method releases the buprenorphine into the body more slowly, helping them feel more stable. Additionally, inmates cannot pressure other inmates for their dosage.”


As for the visitation ban, it seems it will continue for the foreseeable future, with Corrections NSW saying it is “unsure” when the ban will be lifted. In media reports, the reduction in drug flows into prisons has been spruiked as an uncomplicated win.

Little has been said about the effects this is having on prisoners, or how it’s feeding into the tensions inside these facilities.

One person incarcerated in a NSW maximum-security prison says the situation is becoming dire as the visitation ban stretches on.

“They’re trying to get high any way they can,” he says. “I’ve seen a bloke get his methadone, he came back to the unit and took his rice-cooker bowl into the shower, threw up his methadone and strained it through a sock for his mate to drink.”

The unnamed Corrective Services NSW employee says tensions are feeding violence against prisoners on sanctioned OST programs. He recalls a recent attack on one inmate.

“When he got back to the yard, he was knocked to the ground. They stuck him with a syringe and tried to get it out of him,” he says.

“That’s how desperate people have become.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 6, 2020 as "Double lockdown".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Mahmood Fazal is a writer and filmmaker.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on June 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.