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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