Opinion piece: Why releasing prisoners will help protect our community from COVID-19

The prison I was sent to for the majority of my 10-month sentence didn’t even have a fence around it. There were boundaries, of course. We all knew we weren’t allowed to step over the other side of the road that led into the prison, and at one point there was a yellow line painted on the ground to mark where we couldn’t cross. But it would have been ridiculously easy to make an initial escape. People frequently seem amazed when I tell them this, but the simple fact is only the lowest risk inmates were sent there. Everyone there had less than three years left on their sentence, and most had significantly less than that to begin with. The prospect of living life on the run until our inevitable recapture, followed by being sentenced to another year or so in a more secure prison for escaping, was not even remotely appealing.

While security was clearly low, we were still in an extremely close environment with one another. During the day I worked in a crowded office environment, handling administration duties for the prison. At night we were locked in small units, each containing a dozen or so prisoners, and many of us had to share a cell with another inmate. When it came to winter, someone inevitably got the flu. It wasn’t long until the entire prison was suffering from it.

If you think access to healthcare and medical professionals is sub-standard in the general community, you’d be amazed at how much worse it is in the prison system. There was a nurse available every day for minor ailments like headaches. But if you wanted to see a doctor for a more serious problem, the waiting period was frequently more than a month. The waiting period to see the dentist was about four months. An elderly prisoner in my wing with failing health was on a waiting list for over six months just to be transferred to another prison with better health facilities.

It is well-known that COVID-19 spreads faster in enclosed environments, and it has long been established that prisons are especially hard hit by airborne communicable diseases. On account of this, certain low-risk inmates have already been released in Ireland, the United States and Iran in order to protect the community. Here in Australia, an open letter was recently signed by over 370 lawyers, academics and advocates was released, urging the Australian government to do the same, noting that once coronavirus gets into our prison system, there will be a “substantial flow on effect to the community, including community health services”.

In response to COVID-19, the prison system in Victoria has announced a ban on visiting inmates. While this will may buy us some time, like most of the government’s initial responses to this outbreak, it is a completely inadequate response. Prisons are still obviously attended daily by guards, education staff, nurses, lawyers and support workers. Coronavirus reaching our prisons is inevitable, and our already sub-standard and struggling prison health system simply cannot handle a mass outbreak.

I costs nearly $110,000 a year to keep someone in prison in Australia. While our community undeniable should be protected from violent individuals, over 2,500 prisoners in Australia are currently deemed low-risk enough to be serving their sentences at ‘open’ prisons, being those that do not require inmates “to be confined by a secure perimeter physical barrier”. If people are designated as such a low risk to the community that they don’t even need a fence to contain them, one struggles to imagine why the government thinks this money is best spent keeping them in an environment where they are going to exacerbate this growing pandemic, rather than investing it into fighting the spread of the virus.

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