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Why are prisoners being released early during COVID-19?

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Why are prisoners being released early during COVID-19?

Health  |   By Mckenna Taylor

Nations around the world have started to introduce measures that enable the early release of prisoners in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Countries such as the United States, Iran and Ireland have already released thousands of prisoners, with others preparing to follow their lead.

So far, New South Wales is essentially the only Australian jurisdiction to have passed legislation that enables these sorts of measures to be carried out. The COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures) Act 2020 (NSW) was passed on 24 March 2020 and provides the Corrections Commissioner with the power to release prisoners on parole if satisfied that it is necessary because of the risks arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst prisoners convicted of certain serious offences will not be eligible for early release under this scheme, it is hoped that these amendments will help to protect vulnerable inmates and allow the health needs of remaining inmates to better addressed.

The ACT has also broadened the criteria for releasing inmates for short term permits. With so many other pressing issues during the pandemic, why are these measures so important? Overcrowding, poor sanitation and limited access to healthcare means that prisons can become epicentres for infectious disease. Due to chronic overcrowding within these facilities, most inmates are unable to adhere to the strict social distancing requirements that are being enforced in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. It is also more difficult to maintain good hygiene practices within a prison setting, given shared bathroom facilities and limited access to soap and other hygiene products.

Unfortunately, many of the most vulnerable groups within our society, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people with disabilities and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are vastly over-represented within Australia’s prison population. This means an outbreak of COVID-19 within an Australian prison would have a disproportionate effect these groups. They are already amongst those identified by the Australian Government as most at risk of serious illness if they contract the virus.

As prisons require a daily influx of personnel to keep them operational, the risk of the virus spreading into the community if an outbreak occurs is also quite high. By enabling the early release of prisoners, governments are attempting to protect the health and wellbeing of inmates, as well as those who continue to work inside prisons, by attempting to avoid an outbreak of COVID-19. It is hoped that such measures will also help to prevent the virus from spreading into the broader community.