With COVID-19 entering a Victorian prison and youth detention centres, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal and human rights organisations are demanding the Andrews Government commit to safely reducing the number of people locked away in Victorian prisons.
While the Government is navigating a complex, ongoing and rapidly evolving situation, Advocates have long argued that prisons are tinder-boxes for COVID-19 — that once the pandemic enters, it risks spreading like wildfire. In order to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, the Andrews Government must take urgent steps to reduce the number of people detained in prisons and youth justice centres, including those most at risk of serious harm from COVID-19.
Despite the Government's efforts, COVID-19 has entered Victoria's prison and youth detention systems with six prisons now in lockdown, following a prison officer at Ravenhall Correctional Centre testing positive for COVID-19.
Any measures taken and practices adopted in places of detention in an attempt to contain COVID-19 must never amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the Government has an obligation to provide equivalency of medical care to people in detention. The Government's strategy to keep detained people and detention centre staff safe and healthy must be health driven and human rights compliant.
We know the news that there are increases in suspected prison COVID-19 cases will distress Aboriginal communities across Victoria. We encourage our community members who have welfare concerns for a loved one in custody to reach out and notify VALS so they can undertake welfare checks and ensure our mob are feeling safe and receiving the supports and care they are entitled to.
According to Nerita Waight, CEO of Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS), the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the criminal legal system means that they will be disproportionately impacted by a COVID-19 outbreak in detention. We understand that one of the detained people who has come into contact with the prison officer who has tested positive is Aboriginal.
Now is the time for the Government to demonstrate a genuine commitment to ending the ill-treatment and deaths of Aboriginal people in custody, immediately and responsibly releasing people from detention.
"We acknowledge that the Government is facing a crisis that is unprecedented in our lifetimes, and we urge the Government to work with civil society organisations, including VALS, public health experts, and medical professionals to keep all of our community safe. And to be clear – the Victorian community includes people who are deprived of their liberty. The Government has a responsibility to implement measures to keep everyone safe and healthy, especially the people who are in its care. People in detention are incredibly vulnerable, unable to take steps such as social distancing to protect themselves", says Ms Waight.
With multiple prisons and youth detention facilities now in lockdown, VALS reminds the Government that it must act urgently to prevent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody due to COVID-19.