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Throughout the pandemic health experts and human rights advocates have been warning about the risk of a Covid-19 outbreak in the prison system. Now it’s happened.

Inside the Covid-19 outbreak in our prisons

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Throughout the pandemic health experts and human rights advocates have been warning about the risk of a Covid-19 outbreak in the prison system. Now it’s happened.

Hundreds of prisoners in NSW have contracted Covid-19 in recents weeks, with the worst of the outbreak centred at Parklea, a private correctional center.

Family members of those inside Parklea are now speaking out about their concerns over the level of care and treatment Covid positive patients are receiving.

Today, Denham Sadler on what happens when you test positive for Covid-19 inside prison, and how this outbreak could have been prevented.

 

Guest: Contributor to The Saturday Paper, Denham Sadler

 
Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

 

Throughout the pandemic, health experts and human rights advocates have been warning about the risk of a Covid-19 outbreak in the prison system.

Now it’s happened.

Hundreds of prisoners in New South Wales have contracted Covid-19 in recent weeks, with the worst of the outbreak centred at Parklea, a private correctional center.

 

Family members of those inside Parklea are now speaking out about their concerns over the level of care and treatment Covid positive patients are receiving.

 

Today, contributor to The Saturday Paper Denham Sadler; on what happens when you test positive for Covid-19 inside prison, and how this outbreak could have been prevented.
 

It’s Tuesday, September 28. 

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

RUBY: 

Denham - you’ve been talking to people who have family members in prison in New South Wales right now. What are they saying to you? 

 

DENHAM:

Yes, these family members are very, very distressed. They're so anxious about their loved ones and it's all centred on Parklea Correctional Centre at the moment, which is the minimum and maximum security prison in Sydney that houses more than a thousand people. So it's a huge prison. 

 

And at the moment, they've got more than half the cases across New South Wales prisons, half the Covid cases. These family members kind of describe really distressing situations... 

 

Archival Tape -- Natalie: 

“I was constantly calling them, and constantly getting hung up on, and constantly no answers.”

  

DENHAM:

I talked to people who had family members that have tested positive to Covid, as well as family members that don't have Covid, that are kind of involved in lockdowns in the prisons and pretty awful conditions anyway. The main concerns come down to: they’re not allowed any communication with their loved ones, if they have Covid.

 

Archival Tape -- Natalie: 

“They don't really give too much information even to next of kin. They kind of leave you in the dark. And that's why both sides, my anxiety and his anxiety kind of skyrockets. Because you don't know, are they getting looked after?”

  

DENHAM:

One of the family members I spoke to, she's named Natalie and her partners’ in Parklea. He went in and at the end of August and within three days, the prison told her that he tested positive for Covid. And then she went about three weeks without hearing anything, because he's got no access to phones, no access to lawyers, he missed the important appeal date for his conviction. He describes not even being given a pen and paper to do anything about that. 

 

Archival Tape -- Natalie: 

“All his rights have been taken basically away from him, because just the fact where he  can't call a legal team. I heard his voice today and he was just very stressed.”

 

DENHAM:

That's a very common theme amongst families, that they're being denied communication with their lawyers as well, which can have a huge impact. And there's no real precedent to whether anything will be done to fix that situation. 

 

RUBY: 

So how did this outbreak at Parklea prison begin? And how bad is it? 

 

DENHAM:

So we know that the first Covid cases were detected in the last week of August.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #1:

“Sydney's Parklea Correctional Centre, has been placed into strict lockdown after at least 12 inmates tested positive to Covid-19.”

 

DENHAM:

And that's risen. They've been more than 170 positive cases within the prison. And there's close to 100 active cases there now.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Commentator #1: 

“We are experiencing an outbreak at Parklea Prison. There have been 43 new cases linked to Parklea Correctional Centre from 8pm last night.”

 

DENHAM:

And it spread across the justice system in New South Wales. Now, there's more than 300 cases across the prisons in New South Wales. And we know that about a third of those are Indigenous Australians. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2: 

“Yesterday, New South Wales Health confirmed 31 cases at Sydney's Parklea Prison, as well as cases connected with prisons in Silverwater and Bathurst.”

 

DENHAM:

And we know after that first week of August, the prison sent about 10 Covid positive patients to other prisons to kind of a specially built facility to treat people with Covid. But then after that, they've been told by the government the way to deal with this is internally. 

 

So now if you test positive for Covid in Parklea you're locked to your cell up to 24 hours a day. A few people I've spoken to kind of describe them, maybe let out for a shower one in every three days. And all of them kind of said that they didn't see sunlight for two or three weeks. 

 

I spoke to one person specifically called Troy who caught Covid in the prison. So he had a new cellmate move in at the end of August. And then pretty soon after that, the prison raised concerns that that cellmate had come into contact with the virus somehow, he developed symptoms two days after that, pretty severe Covid symptoms, the classic fever, coughing. And then he says he wasn't tested for the virus for five days. So he was left in the cell, locked in with those symptoms.

 

He describes feeling like he was nearly dying. And he said eventually he was given two Panadol tablets and some melatonin as well, by the guards. He says that's the extent of medical treatment he was given the whole time, even though he got Covid pretty severely. 

 

RUBY: 

Right - so it sounds like there are issues around access to medical care at Parklea. But do we know why Parklea seems to be so badly hit, why the bulk of Covid-19 cases in the New South Wales prison system are happening there? 

 

DENHAM:

There's one very big thing that sets Parklea apart from a lot of other prisons in New South Wales, and that's that it's privately operated. 

 

So there's obviously a lot of other prisons that are outsourced, but this is one of the biggest ones. A company called the Management Training Corporation, which is a big US company, they run a lot of prisons over in the US. They make a lot of money from that. 

 

They run it in partnership with a company called Broadspectrum, which used to be called Transfield. And a lot of people have probably heard of them from running immigration detention centres and know a lot of the stories about the conditions in those too. 

 

So I spoke specifically to a doctor who used to work in a number of prisons in New South Wales and kind of had close contact with New South Wales Justice and Justice Health. And he says his first reaction to it being Parklea, the prison that saw a lot of cases, was his heart just sank and he didn't think they'd be able to cope. 

 

He's had long standing concerns about the conditions in the prison in terms of health care well before Covid. He says they weren't meeting minimum standards. They weren't providing any level of care that we'd expect for someone in the general society in these prisons. 

 

That was a core theme, and perhaps why it's worse at Parklea, in terms as a private operator it's a bit hands off from the state government, it's harder to get information and there's a lack of transparency and health services aren't necessarily up to the same level as in public prisons. 

 

RUBY: 

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Denham... Who is responsible for this outbreak? As you’ve said, Parklea is a private prison, but obviously it has to abide by the New South Wales government's regulations. So who is culpable and how is this likely to play out? 

 

DENHAM:

It's another one that's made a lot trickier by it being privatised, but it still all does come back to the state government. These are people that meant to be under the care of the state government, even if they've outsourced some of that job.

 

There are a number of enquiries going on, there's an independent inspector of custodial services and they've launched an enquiry into the Covid response in general in prisons, but that will obviously focus on Parklea.

 

It does come back to the private company and obviously, whether these companies, they have in their contracts, there’s elements, they get fined if someone loses their life in prison, if someone escapes, things like that, we don't really know the details of that because they're often redacted. 

 

But you'd imagine there might be some consequences for the prison depending on what these enquiries find out. And there is precedent in other states to kind of take these prisoners back into state control. But it's obviously very early to say whether anything like that will happen. 

 

So I think that that's another concern amongst the family members: who is held to account when this stuff happens in a privately run facility and who's able to kind of step in and help the situation now? Because these enquiries might get answers, but they're not going to help the people that are still in there now with Covid raging inside there. 


 

RUBY:

Mm and Denham, going right back to the beginning of the pandemic, there were warnings about what might happen if Covid-19 entered the prison system. There were concerns about how it might spread in crowded jails, and that inmates wouldn't be able to protect themselves because they wouldn't be able to socially distance and that kind of thing. Given that we're now more than 18 months into the pandemic, did Parklea prison just miss the opportunity to put things in place to prevent this from happening? Could it have been avoided? 

 

DENHAM:

I think it's pretty safe to say that all prisons have missed an opportunity in Australia to be prepared for this, it's just happening at Parklea at the moment. But we've known since the start of the pandemic, more than 18 months ago, that prisons are one of the really top at risk areas for a Covid outbreak. In terms of a lack of hygiene, there's no ability to socially distance, and in terms of the people that are put in these prisons are much more likely to be vulnerable to the virus as well.

 

And in terms of vaccination rates, we know that the prison and prison staff were included in phase 1b of the rollout, which kicked off in March. But we also know that there wasn't any real rush to vaccinate these facilities. And there's been big issues around access to vaccines. 

 

It's been reported that vaccines that are meant to go to Parklea prison where the outbreak was, have actually gotten diverted to the high schools in New South Wales when that happened last month. And a lot of the family members I spoke to said their loved ones are more than happy to get vaccinated. 

 

But it's only the last month or so since the outbreak that the prison is going to be ramping up its efforts to get people vaccinated, which is obviously great now. But that's not going to do much to fix this outbreak at the moment. So there were a lot of options. We knew the risk, but nothing had really been done. And that's kind of led to this crisis now. 

 

And we knew about this. Like so many organisations, legal groups, human rights groups have been warning us from the very start, that prisons are just a huge ticking time bomb ready to go off in terms of Covid. 

 

A lot of the people I talked to kind of describe Australia almost getting lucky that we didn't have many cases last year. We haven't seen any outbreaks until this recent one in a prison. But I think there's also been very little done to mitigate that risk going into this year. 

 

RUBY:

Mm and when you think about what's happening at Parklea, the size of the outbreak at the moment, the amount of people that have been affected, all of the things that allowed this to happen, things like vaccines being diverted elsewhere, the impact on on the prisoners themselves, on their ability to access the justice system. What does it say to you about the way our prison system more broadly is operating in Australia at the moment? Because from the outside, when you hear all of that, it sort of sounds like no one really cares what's happening to these prisoners. 

 

DENHAM:

I think that's it, unfortunately. I think it says a lot about how we view prisoners in themselves as places partly for punishment and also places you can just put people in and forget about. 

 

And I think if that's your approach to prisons, it's much easier to hear about an outbreak there and not be really concerned, and not do things to stop that. If you think people are there because they deserve it, they deserve to be punished, that's what's going to happen. 

 

And I think it raises very important questions about privatisation as well. I think it's much more common in prisons here than I think a lot of people realise, I think, than I realised before I start looking at it properly that there's a huge amount of private prisons in Australia. 

 

And I think that does raise huge questions in normal times. But I think the problems become much more exacerbated when you have a huge crisis, like a Covid outbreak and all these issues that come with it that are made worse by having a private company operating it. 

 

One of them is a huge American company that makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year. And I think is that really the sort of company we want looking after these very vulnerable people, when there's Covid raging across the prison system?

 

If any positive can come out of this, it’s that maybe there's a spotlight on this, on the conditions. And hopefully it's saying that this isn't just due to Covid like these are conditions that people are in for the whole time they're in prison. It's not just this crisis. And that hopefully may be a reshaping of viewing how we treat people that are incarcerated. 

 

RUBY:

Denham, thank you so much for your time. 

 

DENHAM:

Thanks for having me. 

[Advertisement] 

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:

Also in the news today...

 

New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian has unveiled the next stages of the state’s reopening road map. 

Lockdown restrictions will be eased for fully vaccinated people from the 11th of October when the state reaches the 70% vaccination target. Hospitality, non-essential retail and personal services will be allowed to reopen subject to density limits. And, up to five visitors will be allowed at home with outdoor gatherings limited to 20 people.

The same freedoms will be allowed for unvaccinated people from the 1st of December. 

And GPs and pharmacies located in the outer suburbs of Melbourne will receive cash grants of up to $10,000 in order to speed up the vaccine rollout in Covid-hit suburbs. 

Clinics wanting to take part can register their interest with the Victorian government from next week.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

 

[Theme Music Ends]


 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

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

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