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Fears Of 'Devastating' Coronavirus Outbreak In Prisons, But NSW Resists New Early Release Powers

NSW has "no immediate plans" to use new powers and release prisoners early over virus overcrowding fears, despite calls from justice advocates to mitigate possible "devastating" effects.

The NSW government recently granted new powers to its corrections system, allowing "potential conditional release on parole" for inmates coming to the end of their sentences for relatively minor crimes.

The COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures) Bill gives the opportunity for prison populations to be thinned, releasing some inmates under strict parole conditions such as electronic monitoring or home detention.

NSW attorney-general Mark Speakman said the "extraordinary measures" would only consider "vulnerable offenders and others who pose a low risk to the community".

Attorney-General Mark Speakman. Image: AAP

However, Corrections NSW told 10 daily it had "no immediate plans" to use the powers, despite concerns raised by academics and politicians over potential coronavirus outbreaks behind bars.

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"We're concerned they're not taking a proactive response in prisons. Once there's an outbreak, it would be hard to manage, and the fallout on the health system for the community would be devastating," Dr Thalia Anthony, a law professor at the University of Technology Sydney, told 10 daily.

"Physical distancing in prisons is an impossibility."

Anthony said overcrowded prisons were running over capacity, with some cells seeing inmates doubling-up or tripling-up beds. Combined with many prisoners suffering serious health problems, she claimed it presented a situation where coronavirus could "spread like wildfire".

Fears have been raised about the spread of coronavirus in prisons. Image: Getty

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported as of June 2019, there were 43,028 people in Australian prisons. An AuditNSW report in May 2019 warned the state government had relied on "temporary approaches over a long period," such as adding temporary beds in existing facilities.

Coronavirus outbreaks in prisons in the United States and Britain have seen several correctional staff die, while multiple staff at Sydney's Long Bay hospital were diagnosed last month.

Anthony was one of more than 100 legal experts and academics who recently wrote an open letter to governments nationwide, calling for prison reforms in light of coronavirus.

The letter warned "many people" behind bars suffered from chronic conditions like "diabetes, cardiovascular disease and asthma, which makes them vulnerable to more severe forms of COVID-19".

"It is only a matter of time before COVID-19 breaks out in our prisons and youth detention centres," the letter reads,

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One of the prisoners potentially at risk is Sam*, an inmate in his 20s who is currently housed in a Sydney prison. His two-year sentence in minimum-security for drug offences is due to end in June.

Sam is an asthmatic, has a history of bowel issues, and recently suffered "excruciating" abdominal and stomach problems,  according to sister Sarah*.

But his recent request to leave prison early on parole was knocked back, with prison officials saying "there are no plans to release anyone at the moment".

"It would be a nightmare if [coronavirus] got into prisons," Sarah told 10 daily.

"The inmates will all contract it. There's no distancing inside. They're all in cells, they use the same phone," she claimed.

Sarah said her brother claimed guards and staff in his prison were not wearing gloves or masks, which she said was "alarming".

Image: Getty

In a statement to 10 daily, Corrections NSW defended its response to the coronavirus, but said releasing prisoners wasn't an immediate priority.

"This new measure will only be used if deemed absolutely necessary for the safety and effectiveness of our prisons," a spokesperson said.

"There are no immediate plans to release anyone using this emergency measure, but if it does become necessary it will be done on a case by case basis and community safety will always be our number one priority."

Masks,  gloves, soap and hand sanitiser are "already available"  in prisons, the spokesperson said, while the department is working to provide more disinfectant wipes, protective gear and eyewear.

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The spokesperson said prison visits from friends and family were suspended on March 16 "in accordance with the advice of health authorities".

But this, according to Anthony, raised mental health concerns.

"Isolation in prisons is very different than for people in the community. We're worried about the mental and physical health of prisoners. This is a blindspot for a lot of governments," she said.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge, the party's justice spokesperson, said the state government needed to mitigate "unacceptably dangerous conditions" in prisons.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge. Image: AAP

"It’s time to take other proactive smart steps to reduce risks to inmates and staff, and reduce the eventual burden on our health system too," he said.

"When people were being sentenced to prison, the courts were not able to consider the risk to their health that this pandemic posed, and it is reasonable to reflect on the changed nature of imprisonment at a time like this."

"There are real concerns that waiting until it is necessary to release inmates means the Government and Commissioner are waiting for outbreaks of COVID-19 to implement these measures. By then it will be too late."

Anthony is a signatory to another open letter to be released Wednesday.

It calls on governments to "immediately" begin coronavirus testing in prisons, and prioritise the decarceration of potentially vulnerable groups including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the elderly and sick, women and children.

"There is a clear need to mitigate risk to public health from COVID-19. People in prison and the wider community will be affected if prisons become clusters of infection," the letter stated.

*Names changed to preserve anonymity.