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.

COVID-19 update

Unfortunately with the ongoing pandemic many events, both large and small, are being cancelled. Among these are the Newcastle Writer’s Festival in April and also the Write Here! festival in May. I was booked to appear at both events, though I have already been assured I will be able to appear at next year’s Write Here! festival. I think it’s highly likely I’ll be able to appear at next year’s Newcastle Writer’s Festival as well.

The book signing on March 29 I previously advertised has been postponed indefinitely. Organisers have assured me the event will be going ahead at a later date, once things have returned to normal. But as you’re probably aware, nobody has an exact idea of when that will be. The only other event I had already been booked for this year is in September. We can only hope the situation will have stabilised by then. In any case I’ll keep you posted.

As they say, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. At least that’s what I did in prison, using the enforced isolation to write my novel and then teach myself to draw. Now that I’m spending more time at home due to coronavirus I’m getting portrait drawing orders done a lot faster (send me an email if you’d like to order one), I’m making good progress on a couple different writing projects, plus I’m sure catching up on a lot of reading. If you’re looking for something to read to help pass the hours of self-isolation, obviously I do recommend my novel Scarred which is available on Kindle and for order from all good book retailers in paperback.

Stay safe everyone, and best wishes.

First public book signing

It’s going to be several weeks of firsts for me. Last night I was the guest of honour at a local book club meeting (pictured). The club had selected Scarred as their book of the month and asked me to come and talk about the experience of writing it, which was a very new and rewarding experience for me. And later this month I’ve been booked for my first public book signing event.

I’ll actually be in two Harry Hartog stores on Sunday the 29th of March. From 10:30am till 11:30 I’ll be signing copies of Scarred at their Kotara store, and then from 12:30pm till 1:30 I’ll be signing copies at their Green Hills branch. Come along if you’d like to buy a signed copy, get your existing copy signed, or just say hi and ask me some questions. If you can’t make it, you’ll still be able to catch me at my first public talk about my novel at the Newcastle Writer’s Festival on April 4th.

Dates confirmed for Newcastle Writer’s Festival

I’m very happy to announce the details have been released for my booked appearance at this years Newcastle Writer’s Festival. I’ll be on a panel with two other local authors, talking about the experience of writing our books and the journey to publication. My slot is on Saturday the 4th of April, from 11:30am till 12:30pm; you can find the entire festival program here. Aside from a brief speech at my book launch, this will be the first public talk I’ll be giving about my book, but it won’t be the last. I’ve already been booked elsewhere for another panel in May, plus a stand-alone talk in September. Stay tuned for further details about those.

Second art exhibition on display

Having a launch for an art exhibition is always a bit daunting. Thankfully my second one went just as well as my first. ‘Faces of Suspension’ launched last Friday night at Suspension Espresso in Islington, NSW. The art will still be on display until February 3rd, so go down and check it out if you get a chance.

Having a joint book launch and art exhibition and a second stand-alone art exhibition within two months has been a lot of work. Now that it’s over though I almost don’t know what to do with myself. Mostly I’m focusing on the autobiography (now 79,000 words in), though I’m still finding time to promote my novel Scarred. Check out this interview I did recently with the book website Awesome Gang.