Prisons and Youth Justice Centres in NSW confirm inmate release plans and strict health measures

Correctional and Youth Justice Centres across the state are ramping up measures to protect those in custody from COVID-19 after listening to calls from criminal justice experts.

An initial open letter to the Australian government last month prompted planned reforms to the criminal justice system in certain jurisdictions including NSW, but now more than 400 experts and organisations have signed a second letter with five new recommendations.

These include widespread screening for COVID-19 and the immediate hospitalisation of any prisoner or detainee who has symptoms of the virus, as well as the limited release of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inmates at risk.

Co-chairperson of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and signatory to the letter, Nerita Waight, said Indigenous deaths in custody from COVID-19 must be prevented.

"Governments should release Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from prisons and youth detention, due to our high vulnerability to the severe and critical impacts of COVID-19," she said.

Riverina Juvenile Justice Centre, Mannus Correctional Centre and Junee Correctional Centre are all abiding to the latest regulations outlined by the Departments of Corrective Services and Communities and Justice.

Recent changes to legislation will allow the Corrective Services NSW Commissioner to conditionally release some low risk and vulnerable inmates to parole, but only when deemed "absolutely necessary for the safety and effectiveness" of prisons.

"There are no immediate plans to release anyone using this emergency measure, but if it does become necessary it will be done on a case by case basis and community safety will always be our number one priority," a spokesperson from Corrective Services said.

"Certain categories of inmates, including murderers, terrorists, sex offenders, and any other serious offender, will not be considered under this legislation."

For youth centres under the Department of Communities and Justice, a spokesperson said it had turned its focus to virtual supervisions.

"Where practical, supervision is now being provided primarily by telephone or video link instead of face to face contact," they said.

Visitation has also been temporarily suspended at both correctional and youth justice centres across the state.

"Visits were suspended at NSW prisons on 16 March 2020, in accordance with the advice of health authorities," a Corrective Services spokesperson said.

"We have taken steps to make telephone calls more accessible for inmates and are rolling out a solution that will increase the availability of video visits with family and friends."

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The Corrective Services spokesperson also said all forms of external leave for inmates had been suspended.

"Prison transfers have been limited to essential movements including urgent medical escorts and transporting inmates from court cells to prisons," they said.

"We suspended all forms of external leave, except under special circumstances with the approval of the Commissioner, to reduce the risk of COVID-19 being introduced into the custodial environment.

"This includes inmates participating in work, education or training in the community, in addition to day and weekend leave."

The University of Technology's Professor Thalia Anthony said despite the state's proactive response to prisoner safety, more needed to be done.

"NSW introduced prisoner release legislation last month, which is a promising start, but we'd like to see some improvements to this legislation and other jurisdictions need to step up their response to this rapidly evolving health emergency," the Sydney-based professor said.

There are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at correctional or youth justice centres in NSW.

This story NSW prisoner release a possibility if 'absolutely necessary' first appeared on The Daily Advertiser.