Worry over social distancing in NSW jails

NSW Corrective Services Commissioner Peter Severin has been handed new coronavirus parole powers.
NSW Corrective Services Commissioner Peter Severin has been handed new coronavirus parole powers.

Prisoner advocates remain concerned that social distancing rules aren't being followed inside NSW jails despite parliament passing legislation that allows for vulnerable offenders to be prioritised.

Corrective Services NSW says it's working with Justice Health and the Forensic Mental Health Network to identify at-risk prisoners in need of additional protection.

"This includes isolating those at risk from the general population where required," a Corrective Services spokeswoman said in a statement.

The department couldn't confirm whether adequate social distancing was being implemented at all times but said inmates had access to exercise yards under staff supervision.

NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman says a special coronavirus bill passed on Tuesday allows the Corrective Services commissioner Peter Severin to grant conditional parole to low-risk offenders where necessary.

The law could see vulnerable inmates prioritised for potential release including "older inmates nearing completion of their sentence".

The Australian Lawyers Alliance says every state and territory should follow the lead of NSW. But it wants vulnerable prisoners removed more quickly.

"Prisoners should be released from today, we shouldn't be waiting for an outbreak of this virus before it happens," an alliance spokesman told AAP.

He doubted social distancing was possible in some of the state's most crowded prisons.

That question is worrying the relatives of NSW inmates, Justice Action co-ordinator Brett Collins said.

"The social distancing advised by the government is not achievable if anyone is sharing a cell, which is still going on," Mr Collins said.

Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive Karly Warner welcomed the new legislation and hoped it would free up frontline resources.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more likely to experience severe symptoms if infected with COVID-19 due to their higher rates of illness and chronic disease.

"Each day that we don't act, there continues to be an influx of workers to prisons and youth detention centres, creating greater exposure for people in and out of prison to COVID-19," Ms Warner said in a statement.

Community Restorative Centre director Mindy Sotiri believed the legislation is sensible and reducing the prison population is a critical public health strategy.

"It will assist in reducing the enormous risk of transmission inherent in custodial environments," she said.

But the NSW Police Association warned releasing prisoners into the community during "unprecedented circumstances" could "add fuel to a potentially already fast-burning fire".

President Tony King said there was no evidence of a bed shortage in the state's prisons and a new facility is ready to be opened on the north coast.

"This is not a genie that can be put back in the bottle easily once it is opened, and victims and the general public's safety should never be compromised," Mr King said in a statement.

Australian Associated Press