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The rollout of Covid-19 vaccines to Australian prisons has been delayed despite evidence from around the world that the virus can be a disaster for incarcerated people. By Denham Sadler.

Delays in vaccinating prisoners

A doctor takes a Covid-19 swab from an inmate at the clinic in Sydney’s Long Bay jail.
Credit: Nick Moir / NINE

Prisoners in Victoria have only begun to receive Covid-19 vaccinations this week, more than two months after they first became eligible, as advocates warn there remains a serious risk the virus could “run wild” in prisons without widespread immunisation.

The state government clearly has similar concerns. On May 31, the Metropolitan Remand Centre was briefly plunged into lockdown because a staff member mistakenly believed they had visited an exposure site.

A few days later, the Melbourne Assessment Prison was sent into a strict lockdown after a worker attended a tier 1 exposure site in the city. All prisoners were restricted to their cells during this lockdown.

In-person visits to all prisons in Victoria have been barred for the past fortnight.

The state’s latest outbreak has drawn attention to the delayed vaccine rollout in prisons and revived long-running fears of a significant outbreak in one of these facilities.

While neither prisoners nor prison staff were mentioned in any publicly available information about the national vaccine rollout, both were meant to be part of phase 1b. Corrections Victoria acknowledged this during a meeting with stakeholders on May 18, while confirming the vaccine rollout in prisons was yet to begin.

Sources say Corrections Victoria staff told the meeting the rollout would have been further along but it had taken a while to work out what phase prisoners fell into because they were not included in documents produced by the federal government.

The first prisoners in Victoria were finally vaccinated on June 7. It is expected the rollout will stretch into September.

Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) chief executive Nerita Waight says the organisation had been attempting to work with the state government on the prison rollout for more than six months, with little success.

Last year, VALS made a submission calling for the vaccine rollout in prisons to be prioritised, and to ensure culturally appropriate information was provided to Indigenous prisoners.

“We are deeply concerned by the government’s delay in implementing the recommendations that VALS and public health experts worldwide have repeatedly made regarding the urgent need to vaccinate people in prisons,” Waight says.

“We are fearful that the Andrews government’s failure to vaccinate detained people will lead to more Aboriginal deaths
in custody.”

 

Concern about Covid-19 leaking into prisons stems from three common issues in these facilities: overcrowding, poor ventilation and
a vulnerable cohort of individuals.

“Prisons can be overcrowded, have substandard hygiene practices, poor healthcare services, a population with high-risk health conditions and a revolving door of workers coming into prisons and then returning to their families and community every day,” explains Monique Hurley, associate legal director of the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC).

In the United States, these structural vulnerabilities created a perfect storm during the pandemic with at least one in five prisoners contracting Covid-19, and more than 1700 deaths.

In Australia, a prison outbreak of the virus remains a risk rather than a reality. But overcrowding in Victoria’s prisons has been well documented in recent years.

Despite a reduction in the state’s prison population in 2020, inmate numbers have increased steadily this year, with more than 7200 people in prisons as of the end of April. The state government is predicting there will be more than 8000 people in prison by mid-2022. Due to Victoria’s strict bail laws, a large portion of these people are on remand and have not been found guilty of a crime.

And to keep the virus out of prisons, Victorian authorities have had to take extreme measures – enacting periods of strict lockdowns, quarantine and restrictions on visitations – for more than a year.

“People in prison haven’t been able to touch their husbands or wives or kids since Covid began,” Fitzroy Legal Centre prison advocacy lawyer Karen Fletcher says. “There’s a high risk associated with the continuing deprivation of people in prison’s contact with their families and loved ones.”

People entering prison in Victoria are also subject to two weeks of quarantine, effectively solitary confinement, and this is expected to continue until there are appropriate levels of vaccination in prisons.

“They say they can’t [end quarantine] until vaccinations are done, and yet there’s this delay in getting vaccinations started in prisons,” Fletcher says.

Hurley of the HRLC says prisoners must now be vaccinated as a matter of priority.

“The delays to date in rolling out the Covid-19 vaccine in prisons are completely unacceptable given that evidence from
around the world is clear that prisons can be
a Covid-19 powder keg,” she says.

Last year, the HRLC outlined five key actions for governments to take to reduce the risk of Covid-19 in prisons, including the early release of people close to the end of their sentence, granting parole to people with low-level offending and making bail more accessible.

But it does not appear that these recommendations have been followed.
While New South Wales and the ACT passed laws allowing for the early release of people from prison, there is no evidence they have been used.

The overall reduction in the number of people in Australian prisons is largely due to more people being granted bail by police and the courts, rather than direct actions by governments.

“We’ve been warning since the start of the pandemic that if Covid-19 enters prisons, it would spread quickly and cause significant harm,” Hurley says.

“Yet state and territory governments have done little to nothing to reduce the number of people being funnelled into prisons.”

 

Victoria isn’t the only state moving slowly to vaccinate prisoners. Western Australia is yet to start, while other states and territories confirmed the process has begun but they could not say how many prisoners had received their first dose.

Only the ACT government could list how many people in prisons had received the vaccine – 179 as of the start of this week.

In NSW, Justice Health has been delivering vaccines in prisons since March, the department said, but no further information on the number of people who have received a dose was provided.

The Queensland government said Queensland Health and Corrective Services are working together to deliver the vaccine in prisons but did not provide any further information on the rollout.

Vaccinations have begun in the Northern Territory’s two prisons and are expected to take several months.

In Tasmania, the Pfizer vaccine has been on offer in prisons since April. The rollout is “well advanced”, a Department of Justice spokesperson said, and is expected to be completed “in coming weeks”.

As for the people working in prisons, who are crucial to keeping any community transmission out of these facilities, vaccination data around the country is spotty.

WA was the only state able to provide figures for prison staff vaccination, with 81 having received both doses and 459 workers receiving their first dose. The other states and territories do not collect this data.

The Victorian government will be collecting data on prison staff who receive the vaccine onsite, but the state is still working on getting data about any staff who have been vaccinated outside the workplace. The Covid-19 vaccine is not mandatory for people working in Victorian prisons.

Victoria’s prison vaccine rollout has been outsourced to Correct Care, the primary health provider in these facilities. In relation to VALS’ concerns, it is understood Indigenous people in Victorian prisons will receive “culturally appropriate communication materials” about the vaccine.

Most other jurisdictions will only be providing the same vaccine information that is available to the general public. Although in NSW, this information will be translated into several languages and a doctor will be present at vaccination clinics for prisoners.

 

Law and order politics renders the vaccination of people in prison a politically fraught issue.

In Victoria, vaccination has become caught up in a wider debate about the tough-on-crime rhetoric embraced by both the state government and opposition, and a growing push among legal and human rights groups for the state’s bail laws to be repealed.

The Victorian opposition recently criticised the Andrews government over the number of “emergency management days” issued during the pandemic.

Totalling these EMDs, the shadow minister for Corrections, David Southwick, said 900 years had been wiped off 5000 people’s prison sentences in the past year.

While Corrections Victoria said the use of EMDs had “helped maintain a calm prison system” during the pandemic, Southwick dismissed them as a “get-out-of-jail-free card”.

Greg Barns, spokesperson for the Australian Lawyers Alliance, says it’s clear the calls to prioritise prisons in the vaccine rollout have gone unheeded for political reasons.

“It would seem politicians and those making the decision on priority for Covid vaccines conveniently ignore prisoners for political reasons,” he says.

“It is dangerous, inhumane and, if Covid does run wild in prisons, will be horrendously expensive for governments to contain.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 12, 2021 as "Inside out".

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Denham Sadler is a freelance writer living in the Kulin nations.