opinion

Hundreds more 'Ruby Princesses' are already in Australia. And no one is talking about them.

In just 12 days, New York’s Rikers Island prison has gone from one to almost 200 confirmed coronavirus cases. One corrections staff member has died from the virus. The prison’s Chief Physician has described the situation as a “public health disaster unfolding before our eyes”.

In Australia – where our incarceration rate is not far behind America’s, and our 100+ prisons are filled to well over capacity – we are headed for the same fate. The Australian government has acknowledged that the 43,000 “people in correctional and detention facilities” are the “most at risk of getting the virus”.

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When the Ruby Princess docked in Sydney last month, a dozen people had reported coronavirus symptoms.

After they left the ship, another 600 Ruby Princess passengers tested positive. Ten later died. People who have contracted the virus on cruise ships now make up a tenth of all cases in Australia.

The 43,000 people in Australia’s prisons are a transitory population. Over a third are serving a short sentence of less than 2 years. For females the average is just a few months. There is constant movement between prisons, both of inmates and staff. More than half of all prisoners are released into homelessness.

If we don’t urgently reduce the prison population, we will soon be dealing with a New York-style disaster. Public health experts have warned that a coronavirus outbreak will overwhelm prison health-care services and then our public hospitals.

They have also warned that prisons will act as a vector for transmission to the wider community, particularly to marginalised groups including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

And yet, all States and Territory governments have so far failed to act.

Who are the 43,000 people locked up in our prisons? Why are our leaders leaving many of them to face an effective death sentence? And why is the risk that this poses to the whole community being left unchecked?

Disproportionately, they are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people from the poorest communities in Australia.

The majority have underlying illnesses and disabilities. Most are non-violent offenders and a third await sentencing.

Many are locked up for “crimes” we never used to imprison people for, like traffic violations and low-level drug offences. In the last decade, Australian states and territories have locked people up at a rate not seen since the 1890s.

This has nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with winning votes by seeming “tough on crime”.

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Prisoners, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, are an especially vulnerable group in this pandemic. Our prisons have shocking track records of failing to provide even basic medical care, let alone managing virus outbreaks. In 2003, an influenza outbreak exploded in NSW prisons and then spread into the community. In 2018, a young Aboriginal man died of an asthma attack in a NSW prison.

Across the country, prisons are already struggling to cope with coronavirus. Visitors have been banned. Many prisons are experiencing huge staffing shortages. Most have already resorted to drastic measures, such as quarantine units for new arrivals, solitary confinement for suspected cases, and indefinite lockdowns.

Other countries are acting rapidly to release prisoners. States across the US, such as Ohio and California, have taken note of what’s happened in New York. They are releasing non-violent offenders and anyone with less than six months remaining on their sentence, and granting emergency clemencies to elderly and sick prisoners.

Iran has released 85,000 prisoners. Northern Ireland has released 10 per cent of the prison population. Scotland, Ireland and the UK have begun releasing non-violent offenders.

In Australia we are lagging behind. Encouragingly, New South Wales has passed legislation that allows the Corrections Commissioner to release prisoners who do not threaten public safety. However, no meaningful reduction in numbers has happened yet.

Australia’s Premiers and Chief Ministers need to learn from what happened with the Ruby Princess, and from the Rikers Island disaster in New York, and act quickly. They must release prisoners who don’t threaten public safety, and make legislative changes to prevent the continued imprisonment of people who aren’t dangerous.

The $4.7 billion – or $302 per prisoner, per day – that we spend on imprisoning people should be redirected to supporting those released to isolate safely in the community.

Critically, these changes should not be temporary. Our prisons should never have been this full in the first place.

The 43,000 people in our prisons are part of our community. They were sent to prison to lose their freedom, not their lives. For the majority of prisoners who are not a danger to the community, coronavirus changes the nature of their punishment, making it manifestly unjust. Imagine what social isolation would be like with no smartphone, no internet, no visitors and many of your fellow inmates falling desperately ill and dying. Victoria even has a cruel, unjustified ban on pen pals.

If there’s one lesson to learn from coronavirus it’s that we truly are all in this together. Locking up vulnerable, non-violent people does not build a just or safe society for any of us.

Now it could quite literally harm us all.

Melanie Poole is a writer and public policy consultant. She was previously the Executive Officer for Change the Record, a national campaign to reduce Indigenous over-imprisonment, and the Advocacy and Policy Director at Victoria’s peak body for community and Aboriginal legal services. Tweet her: @melanie_poole_

If you are sick and believe you have symptoms of COVID-19, call your GP ahead of time to book an appointment. Or call the national Coronavirus Health Information Line for advice on 1800 020 080. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 000. 

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