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Coronavirus has taken hold at Parklea Correctional Centre, with at least 140 inmates infected. Treatment is cursory and prisoners with the virus are largely prevented from contacting family members and even lawyers. By Denham Sadler.

Inside the Parklea prison Covid-19 outbreak

A minimum security prison cell at Parklea Correctional Centre, Sydney.
Credit: Supplied

Lying on a mattress on the floor of his cell in the Covid-positive area of Parklea prison, Troy Sherratt felt as though he was dying. After reporting this to the guards, who, rather than medical staff, were undertaking welfare checks, he was eventually given two Panadol.

Sherratt tested positive for Covid-19 while incarcerated at Parklea Correctional Centre, a privately run prison in Sydney’s north-west that is now at the centre of the New South Wales prisons coronavirus outbreak. After a new cellmate was placed with him, prison staff told Sherratt they were concerned he had come into contact with the virus.

Despite beginning to show symptoms the next day, he wasn’t tested for another five days, he says. Two days after that, he was told he had Covid-19. Eventually he was moved to a different area of the prison where positive cases are sent to isolate with one other cellmate.

Sherratt was in quarantine for a further two weeks. He’s been in and out of prison for most of his adult life but describes this as the hardest period.

“I’ve done 15 years of jail and that was the hardest I’ve ever done,” Sherratt tells The Saturday Paper. “Mentally that was the hardest. I felt like I was nearly dead. It was crazy, I’ve never felt that pain in my life, and they just gave me Panadol.”

After first reporting the outbreak in late August, there have been 148 cases of Covid-19 managed at Parklea Correctional Centre, a largely remand minimum- and maximum-security facility. In addition to these cases among inmates, there have been 11 among staff. As of this week, 46 are active cases in the prison.

The NSW government has outsourced the operation and management of the prison to MTC-Broadspectrum, with health services also outsourced to St Vincent’s Health Network.

Covid-19 has spread rapidly in the prison. According to a number of family members of people incarcerated at Parklea, this health crisis is being exacerbated by existing issues at the facility over welfare and access to medical care, along with staffing problems. A former doctor at a number of NSW prisons and the union for staff at the site agree.

Many family members have reported that they have been cut off from any communication with their loved ones after being told the inmate had contracted the virus. These families have serious concerns about the standard of medical care at the facility and about attempts by the prison’s operator to cover up the outbreak.

Any person incarcerated at Parklea who has Covid-19 has been denied contact with their families or lawyers. Many report having missed important court dates or the opportunity to file appeals.

One former prison doctor said his heart sank when he first heard the outbreak was centred at Parklea. He said healthcare there didn’t meet minimum standards even before the Covid-19 outbreak. “My first thought was, ‘Ah shit, they’re not going to cope,’ ” he said. “When you’ve got somewhere like Parklea that’s already underperforming according to Justice Health’s minimum operating standards, this is an absolute medical disaster.

“The NSW state government has created a situation which has led to health services in private prisons operating below a reasonable minimum standard. It’s an absolute shitstorm.”

The former prison doctor said private facilities such as Parklea do not have access to the same level of resources as the public prisons in the state. “Private prisons run on a different funding model and often do not have built-in capacity for extraordinary events,” he says. “They’re going to be overrun very quickly.”

A spokesperson for MTC-Broadspectrum said the prison was taking “appropriate health and safety measures” based on state government and health advice.

“The safety of all staff and inmates is our No. 1 priority,” the spokesperson said. Staff are tested each day they are working at the prison, and all inmates have now been tested for the virus.

While Covid-positive prisoners are being moved to a specially built facility within Silverwater Correctional Complex, Parklea prison is managing inmates with Covid-19 internally in one section of the facility.

Inmates with Covid-19, such as Sherratt, are being kept in a normal cell with another Covid-positive cellmate. Daily heart rate and temperature checks are the extent of medical care provided, Sherratt says.

“As soon as that was over, they just shut the flap and walked away,” he says. “Any questions you asked, they just said they didn’t know. We got no information at all. They don’t even acknowledge that you’re screaming out. It’s so sad. There are boys in there nearly dying.”

Sherratt said a Covid-positive inmate in a cell near his was lying on a mattress on the floor, unable to get off the ground to use the intercom. Other inmates buzzed their own intercoms until 2am trying to get him medical assistance, but none was provided.

Sherratt says he was only provided with Panadol through his two weeks with Covid-19 and was unable to have any contact with his family. “I’ve never been scared in my life like that, and the officers brush it off like you’re nothing.”

A spokesperson for St Vincent’s Health Network said Covid-positive inmates are reviewed daily by a team of clinicians and mental health specialists, and are seen daily by St Vincent’s medical specialists and GPs. They said inmates are prescribed “medications required as clinically indicated”.

Sarah, who asked not to use her real name, has a nephew at Parklea who contracted Covid-19 about three weeks ago. Despite normally speaking up to four times a week, she has had no contact with him since.

“It’s ridiculous,” she says. “You ring up and you’re always told the same thing: ‘They’re doing fine; if anything is wrong, we’ll ring.’ But when are they going to let them ring us? How do we know that he’s alright?”

Sarah’s nephew was meant to have a court date in early September but was not allowed to attend this or speak with his lawyer, she says. This has been a common theme among the families of Parklea inmates, with the private operator often blocking access to lawyers and court proceedings due to the outbreak.

Natalie’s partner arrived at Parklea on August 25 and tested negative for Covid-19 on that day. Three days later, she received a call from the prison saying her partner had tested positive. She didn’t hear from him for 17 days after that and was only given brief updates from the prison saying he was doing “okay”.

Natalie’s partner had no way of contacting his lawyer about an upcoming appeal to his sentence and wasn’t given a pen and paper. He has now missed the 28-day window to make this appeal. “They’ve taken away all his rights,” Natalie says. “Even a simple pen and paper.”

Nearly three weeks after her partner caught Covid-19, Natalie received a call from him. He had finally tested negative twice and was allowed to contact his family and be moved to a different area of the prison. “He was in tears, he was in shock,” Natalie says. “He broke down. It’s taken all of his humanity away from him.”

A spokesperson for MTC-Broadspectrum said all Covid-positive inmates were able to make a call to their families last weekend, a month after the outbreak began.

Virtual court appearances and legal phone calls were being “prioritised” on weekdays, the spokesperson said.

Inmates at Parklea who have not contracted Covid-19 have reported distressing conditions within the prison. Kat Pretty’s son is locked in his cell for 23.5 hours each day with a mentally unwell and at times aggressive man. “He’s terrified,” she says. “No human being should be detained in those sorts of circumstances.”

In mid-September, the NSW Inspector of Custodial Services launched an inquiry into the response to Covid-19 in NSW prisons, which will likely focus on Parklea, while a separate inquiry has also been launched into how the virus made its way into the prison.

With Parklea being a privately run facility, there are also concerns about a lack of transparency and the secrecy that has pervaded the outbreak.

A spokesperson for the company declined to reveal when the first positive case at Parklea was detected, but The Saturday Paper has seen evidence they were aware of the outbreak as early as August 24 – four days before it was publicly acknowledged.

The privatisation of the facility means its workforce is less able to deal with a crisis through surge capacity, the union representing staff at Parklea says. More needed to be done earlier in the year to ensure prison staff were vaccinated.

“Everyone saw this train coming,” Troy Wright, the NSW assistant branch secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, said. “Now we’re reaping that failure. We should have had a fully vaccinated workforce long ago.”

Since the start of the pandemic there have been warnings that the virus could run rampant through a custodial facility, with a range of factors exacerbating the likelihood of transmission. Little has been done to mitigate these risks, though, with no moves to release low-risk prisoners early and lagging rates of vaccination.

A spokesperson for St Vincent’s Health Network said 1332 vaccination doses have been administered to people incarcerated at the facility but could not provide further details on how many people have received both the required vaccination doses.

As Parklea is also largely a remand centre, many of those vaccinated will have since left the prison, and the operator is unable to say how many people currently housed there have received a Covid-19 vaccine.

After 19 days in strict lockdown in his cell, Sherratt tested negative to Covid-19 twice and was released. He was walked to the reception in full personal protective equipment, and then released from prison in his normal clothes.

He still fears for those left in Parklea and is speaking out to raise attention to the conditions in the facility.

“They absolutely don’t know what they’re doing – it’s a scary situation in there,” he says. “We are human.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 25, 2021 as "Inside the Parklea outbreak".

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