A number of Aboriginal organisations have joined together to call for the early release of First Nations people from incarceration to protect them from COVID-19.

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) and the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association (AIDA) have put their support behind an open letter by ten families affected by deaths in custody and community members with family members in prison.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there were 43,028 adult prisoners in custody in Australia as of June 30, 2019.

Over a quarter of those incarcerated (28 percent) were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Makayla Reynolds’ brother Nathan Reynolds died in 2018 from an asthma attack while in prison.

“It took 40 minutes from the first call for medical help to arrive. If prisons couldn’t cope with my brother’s medical emergency back then, how will they cope with an outbreak of Coronavirus?” Reynolds said.

“Every day experts warn of the second wave of COVID-19. It is not good enough to wait for people to get sick, to suspend family visits while prison workers come and go.”

Another woman whose daughter has multiple health conditions is asking for her daughter’s release.

“She has a heart condition and an acute brain injury, and she sounds like she’s deteriorating. This is the third time she’s been refused bail. I worry for her mental health.

“She’s shut off from the world. She’s usually a bubbly person and she’d ring me all the time, but she doesn’t want to talk to anyone on the outside because she’s upset.

“She also has bad hay fever and often has flu-like symptoms. I’m really worried about COVID-19, if she was to come into contact with it, it’d probably kill her.”


Transmission hotspots

As COVID-19 continues, AIDA said the health risk for prisoners increases significantly. A high proportion of First Nations people face an increased risk of contracting the virus due to high levels of chronic disease and other comorbidities, inadequate housing and a lack of culturally appropriate healthcare and health infrastructure.

“As Indigenous doctors, AIDA holds grave concerns for the conditions in prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic. AIDA fully supports NATSILS’ call to Governments to make every effort to prevent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody due to COVID-19,” said AIDA President, Dr Kris Rallah-Baker.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prisons throughout Australia already have compromised health conditions, and we must protect them from this virus, as well as prevent its spread to our communities.”

NATSILS Co-Chairs Cheryl Axleby and Nerita Waight said governments must listen to the voices of concerned families in order to prevent COVID-19 black deaths in custody.

“An outbreak in prisons is imminent and our health system will not be able to cope,” Axleby said.

NATSILS has written to the Attorneys General, Ministers for Corrections and Commissioners for Corrections at State, Territory and Federal levels outlining their position on releasing at-risk prisoners.

The organisation said COVID-19 is “spreading like wildfire in prisons overseas” and that several countries have already released some of their prison population to contain the virus’ spread.

“We must follow their example to prevent any COVID-19 black deaths in custody.”

Aboriginal led justice coalition, Change the Record, has also joined the call upon governments, asking them to close the gap in imprisonment rates of Indigenous people.

“Discriminatory laws and policies brought in by successive governments has resulted in the mass incarceration of First Nations peoples. Right now, as COVID-19 threatens the health and safety of our communities, First Nations peoples in prisons are at an even greater risk,” said Change the Record Executive Officer, Sophie Trevitt.

Trevitt also pointed out the major public health risk prisons pose during a pandemic.

“Prisons are pressure cookers for disease transmission. They are also high-risk environments for human rights abuses.

“It is not an acceptable solution to the threat of COVID-19 to lock people in cells, deny them family access, education or programs.

“We need to be getting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples out of prison, not putting them in.”


PPE prioritised

Since late March, in-person social visitations have been suspended across all adult correctional facilities in Australia.

Following a meeting of the National Cabinet on Tuesday, the Federal Government has indicated it will develop ‘Safe Travel Plans’ for newly released Indigenous prisoners.

This will include secure transport to designated communities and access to self-isolation accommodation.

National Cabinet also agreed States and Territories will deal with COVID-19 according to the Communicable Diseases Network Australia (CDNA) National Guidelines for the Prevention, Control and Public Health Management of COVID-19 Outbreaks in Correctional and Detention Facilities in Australia.

Endorsed by the CDNA and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), these Guidelines are provided to assist corrections facilities to provide “best practice information for the prevention and management of COVID-19 outbreaks in detention and correction facilities”.

The Guidelines outline the increased risk posed to First Nations prisoners and detainees, however they hold no recommendation of early release as a preventative measure.

It was also agreed at the meeting that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) supply should be a priority for correctional facilities, particularly if there are any confirmation of cases in the sector.

By Hannah Cross