Prisons and the pandemic

Covid-19 is exposing the many fractures and frailties that have long existed in our public architecture: from the precarious aged care system built on an underpaid, casualised workforce or the grotesquely underfunded public housing system to a university sector souped up with exorbitant international student fees.

One of the starkest and potentially lethal failures exposed by the pandemic is the broken and bloated prison industry, filled with the people successive governments have let down, from ten-year-olds to the elderly. Prisons were failed, overburdened institutions before the pandemic, and they are even more dangerous now.


Prisons are failed institutions

By almost every metric, prisons are failed institutions. They do almost nothing they purport to do, and they are an enormous drain on the public purse. They increase the long-term burden on the health system, housing system, social security system and drive up unemployment. They increase crime.

Prisons are also the product of racist policies, racist policing and racist systems. Over the last decade, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples condemned to a caged existence in Victoria has doubled. The number of women behind bars in NSW has increased by 33%. There are 80 per cent more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in prisons in Queensland than there were a decade ago. An Aboriginal person in the ACT is almost twenty times more likely to be imprisoned than a non-Aboriginal person. 439 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have died in police or prison cells, or after interactions with law enforcement, since the Royal Commission was handed down in 1991. That’s approximately one death every month. There have been three deaths in the last two months in Western Australia alone.

As well as killing people, prisons also make people sick. Given the high rates of chronic disease, disability and respiratory complications within the prison system, the effects of Covid-19 on this population could be devastating. This is why the United Nations recommended that governments act quickly to reduce prison numbers. Academics have issued warnings of potential catastrophic consequences in Australia if the pressure on the prison system isn’t relieved. Doctors have called for low-risk vulnerable people to be released into the community.


Punishment and public health

Perversely, governments around the country have responded to the Covid-19 public health crisis, and the potential crises threatening our aged-care and public health systems, by further criminalising sections of the community.

Commonwealth legislation and the Sentencing Procedures (or equivalent) acts in the ACT, NSW, QLD, Tasmania and Victoria all refer to the principle of imprisonment as a sanction of last resort –yet state governments have announced enormous fines for breaches of public health orders and threatened prison sentences of up to six months. This is, of course, as lawyers furiously advocate for the clients to be released on bail, granted parole or spared imprisonment in these high-risk, overcrowded institutions during the pandemic.

Scott Morrison announced on national television that ‘we are in a war against this virus’ and Premier Daniel Andrews authorised the police to lock people in public housing towers and force them to exercise in outdoor cages.

As with the ‘war on terror’ or the ‘war on drugs’ or the ‘war on crime’; when our politicians declare ‘wars’ they too often disguise the weapons and collateral damage of their violence as inevitabilities and necessities. The rhetoric of war turns everyone who questions the government’s decisions into enemies of the war effort.

It is possible to hold deep concern about the Covid-19 crisis and to believe that the extraordinary, national public shaming of the two teenagers who unlawfully crossed the Queensland border is a misguided and dangerous response to the health crisis. It is entirely consistent to wish to protect the health and wellbeing of everyone in the community, and also maintain that sending armed police officers into peoples’ homes without notice is a gross overreach of the state.

The rhetoric of war disguises these possibilities and silences public debate.


Beyond prisons

The war on Covid-19 will be no more successful than the war on crime if we repeat its errors.

We will not beat this virus with police and the military and threatening to throw people into prison cells (where they become sitting ducks to contract Covid-19 if it gets through the prison gates) – just as we have not ‘beaten’ crime by locking people in prison cells and ignoring the discrimination, poverty, trauma and ill health that drives it.

Inconsistently – and, arguably, belatedly – governments are being forced to recognise this.

Before the pandemic, the Federal Government refused to budge on raising the disastrously low Newstart Allowance above $40 per day. However, in recognition that subsistence is necessary for public health compliance (and as a reflection of the government’s ideological distinction between the ‘good’ unemployed who were rendered jobless by the pandemic vs the ‘bad’ unemployed who are just not trying hard enough) the Morrison Government introduced the JobSeeker supplement and the JobKeeper scheme.

Even more pointedly, Premier Andrews announced a worker support payment of $300 for workers self-isolating as they wait for test results – an explicit recognition that people cannot obey rules if they can’t afford to do so.

However, even as I write it is painful watching these limited measures being clawed back by the Morrison Government.

The only way we will win the war on Covid-19 is the same way we will win the war on crime, which is to recognise the deep human needs that drive human behaviour and to meet those needs. That means building affordable housing for everyone. It means investing in a social safety net that holds our community up, not forces people to fight for scraps, building an education system that recognises the strengths, cultures and different needs and goals of the children it teaches; and investing in the type of wholistic health care and healing that recognises the many ways trauma manifests itself and works in partnership with individuals, families and communities.


On the precipice

We are teetering on the edge of the precipice. Covid-19 has already found its way into seven prisons and three youth detention centres. Children in Brisbane’s youth prison are effectively being held in solitary confinement. There have been riots in Bolivia over the lack of adequate health care provided to prisoners with Covid-19, prisoners have been killed in protests in Peru and there have been protests in Italy, Iran and in prisons in NSW and Queensland in Australia.

Other countries have recognised the health danger posed by prisons and released hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of people. But Australian governments have so far done very little to address this threat and reduce prison numbers

For too long, people condemned to prisons have been treated as out of sight and out of mind by many of us in the outside community. Covid-19 should end that delusion once and for all. We are all connected. The health of every single one of those individuals condemned to live behind bars is inextricably linked to the health of workers who go in and out of those concrete buildings, and then return to their supermarkets, communities and families. And, from the ten-year-olds being held in youth detention centres, to the elderly imprisoned for driving offences, their families on the outside are living through this moment in terror as they wait to see if their loved one will be sacrificed by governments committed to waging a war they cannot win.


Image by Ichigo121212.

Sophie Trevitt

Sophie Trevitt is the Executive Officer of Change the Record which is a member of the Raise the Age Coalition, and was a youth lawyer in the Northern Territory. @SophieTrevitt

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  1. Thanks for a great article. All the circumstances you describe also apply to refugees and asylum-seekers in detention centres and hotel prisons, like the Mantra in Melbourne and Kangaroo Point in Brisbane.

    The anxiety about COVID-19, the impossibility of social distancing and the risk of the virus being brought in by guards comes on top of the trauma of being detained for more than seven years without a release date.

    That’s why the Refugee Action Collective in Melbourne has been campaigning for refugees to be released into the community. The police response to our COVID-safe car convoy was to charge one activist with incitement and fine a further 30 (a total of $50,000).

    You can find out more about the RAC campaign here:

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