Marking today’s #JusticeCOVID Twitter festival, Associate Professor Megan Williams gives an overview of issues raised during the Croakey investigation of prisoner health and wellbeing during the pandemic.
She provides a wide-ranging list of calls to action from contributors to the #JusticeCOVID series.
Megan Williams writes:
Between April and September 2020, Croakey Health Media published 18 articles, two podcasts and a number of artworks as part of the #JusticeCOVID project, which investigated the urgent need to address the COVID-19 threat to people in detention and prisons.
When we began planning the project in March, hundreds of people had signed an open letter calling for the early release of some prisoners, including those at high risk of harm from COVID-19, such as people with pre-existing health conditions and older people, children and young people. The letter, backed by leaders from health, legal and community sectors, said decarceration was necessary to protect the health and wellbeing of prisoners and the wider community.
At that time, the United States and other countries had begun releasing prisoners in the face of alarming evidence about the rapid spread of coronavirus within prisons and other sites of confinement and detention. By late March the NSW Government passed a Bill to release prisoners meeting certain criteria. But no releases occurred, and a second open letter gathered 400 individual and 11 organisational signatories.
Rather than hearing stories about the release of prisoners and the mobilisation of services to support their re-entry into the community, we heard stories about how a tightening of restrictions within prisons were affecting prisoners and their families. At the regular televised media conferences about governments’ responses to the pandemic, the silence about prisoners’ welfare – from both journalists and public health officials – was so deafening that we provided an alternative briefing paper.
By May, it became clear that #JusticeCOVID was intersecting with much bigger issues, both in Australia and globally. A systemic disrespect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people came clearly into view, at the same time as the wide-ranging impacts of institutional racism was demonstrated by the global Black Lives Matter movement and the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic upon Black people.
Late May was horrendous.
On 26 May, on Sorry Day, we remembered in silence – from our homes, due to restrictions on gatherings – the Stolen Generations created by governments forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. They and their descendants are over-represented in prisons.
That week, we learnt of the blasting of 46,000 year old Juukan Caves by multi-national mining company Rio Tinto, signifying legislative, political and public disregard for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s knowledges and role in the preserving cultural heritage about the ‘seat of humanity’.
Also that week, we watched 46 year-old African-American man George Floyd die in 8 minutes and 46 seconds from being held down by Minneapolis police. He was suspected of using a counterfeit $20 note. To be isolated in a pandemic, to watch someone die on video, it’s horrific.
We were reminded of the invisibility and silencing of deaths of Aboriginal people in police custody, and spoke of Ms Dhu, Ms Day, David Dungay and others. We remember you. We cried hard with grief and harder on June 8 when a Sydney police officer kicked an Aboriginal boy to the ground during an arrest.
As we investigated the public health case to reduce prisoner numbers, we were reminded repeatedly of how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people come to be over-represented in prisons. As tens of thousands of Australians joined Black Lives Matter marches, again we heard the silence of Health Ministers and public health officials on issues such as institutional racism and prisoners’ rights to health.
We are still in the very early stages of the pandemic, which will continue to pose a global health threat for the foreseeable future. Many public health and medical experts have highlighted the urgency of addressing disparities as part of the pandemic response.
The contributors to #JusticeCOVID present some clear calls to action, including:
- Reform legislation, policies and the prison industry
- Centre the voices of people who are or have been in custody in public discourse to drive an agenda of change
- Look beyond ‘tough on crime’ punitive approaches to decarceration processes, crime prevention and models elsewhere successfully closing prisons
- Prohibit solitary confinement
- Ensure independent inquiries into deaths in custody; end police investigating police
- Ensure accountability for police and prison actions in deaths of detainees
- Urgently reduce prisoner numbers, as many other nations in the world are
- Prevent new prison entrants and expand diversionary options such as community service
- Raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14 but prevent any child entering custody at all
- Ensure independent prison inspections and reporting occur.
- Support people in prisons
- Provide mental health and social support to prisoners experiencing solitary confinement and lockdowns
- Increase access to healthcare to address multiple existing issues that exacerbate the risks of COVID-19 infection
- Provide free personal hygiene items for infection control
- Offset cessation of face-to-face visits by improving communications technology to connect prisoners and social supports.
- Rectify the silence on Australian prisons from public health officials and mainstream media
- Convey transparent information and data about prison responses to COVID-19, including use of isolation, testing, infection control measures
- Report Australia’s response in light of human rights obligations including solitary confinement as a form of torture
- Use multiple sources of information to reach families, support services and the public.
- Increase prison and community service staff numbers
- To offset reliance on prison lockdowns, known to be related to staff shortages
- To provide therapeutic care to address harm from prison lockdowns and solitary confinement
- To offset higher individual caseloads and program closures due to social distancing measures
- To meet the expected spikes in legal caseloads from courts reopening
- To support families of prisoners in the community whose wellbeing is also negatively affected.
- Improve training for criminal justice system staff
- Ensure they can address heightened complexity and stress due to COVID19 prison lockdowns and cessation of visitor programs
- Implement recommendations and address failures that have led to deaths in police custody and prisons.
- Provide additional income support and safe accommodation options to reduce overcrowding and risks of domestic violence.
- Address racism and poverty.
Associate Professor Megan Williams is a Wiradjuri justice health researcher and educator, and contributing editor and board member of Croakey Health Media.
This article was supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.