Introduction by Croakey: The families of people in prisons are frightened and anxious about how COVID is being managed in prisons, with a lack of information and transparency making it even harder, reports Cate Carrigan.
Carrigan, who spoke to seven family members, was told of people with disability and health conditions being held in harsh conditions, cut off from communications, including with their children, and with inadequate access to masks and sanitiser.
“It’s really like a nightmare. It’s heartbreaking. You just wait every day to get a phone call to say that something has gone wrong,” said the mother of one young man. Some of the family members quoted in this article did not want to be named.
Cate Carrigan writes:
Last week, an 18-year-old Wiradjuri man tested positive for COVID-19 in Parklea Correctional Facility in Sydney’s north-west, one of more than 80 cases reported in the privately-run facility since late August.
His was one of 148 cases of COVID-19 (42 with unknown source) recorded across correctional facilities in the four weeks to September 4, according to NSW Health.
The man’s mother, Sheree Regan, told Croakey: “I need to hear his voice and know that he’s OK. It’s his first time in jail and I’m devastated.”
She learnt about her son’s situation after repeatedly calling the jail amidst fears the virus had been detected there.
Prison authorities told Regan her son, who has an intellectual disability and ADHD and has not been vaccinated, was being held in isolation in a COVID wing at Parklea prison.
Parklea managing company Broadspectrum-MTC told Croakey its healthcare provider – St Vincent’s Hospital – was providing on-site care to inmates who have tested positive and those requiring a higher level of care would be transferred to hospital.
It confirmed that inmates with COVID can’t talk to their families, although messages will be relayed, that family calls for other prisoners have been resumed and that the facility remains in lockdown.
In a statement, the Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network (the division of NSW Health that looks after prisons) said that, as of September 5, the Network was managing 70 adults and four youths who had tested positive for the virus in government correctional facilities, including a small number associated with the Parklea outbreak.
Justice Health said prisoners with COVID-19 were being transferred to a dedicated unit at Silverwater prison, while private facilities such as Parklea were managing their own cases
Meanwhile, 26.1 percent of inmates at Justice Health facilities were fully vaccinated and 37.8 percent have had one dose as of September 3. Just under 42 percent of prison officers were fully vaccinated and 57.4 percent had one dose, while 80 percent of prison health staff were fully vaccinated and 88 have had one dose.
Croakey has asked Justice Health for the range of immunisation rates across the various facilities but this information has not been provided.
As reported last week, vaccination rates in NSW state-run prisons remain worryingly low, although Justice Health said it’s ramping up the vaccination program in the coming weeks and working to roll out rapid antigen testing (RAT) across NSW prisons, youth justice centres and police cells.
Vaccination rates in private facilities such as Parklea are yet to be made available but Broadspectrum-MTC told Croakey its healthcare provider St Vincent’s was prioritising vaccination of inmates.
Meanwhile, The Guardian Australia reported on 4 September that some vaccines earmarked for prisoners had been diverted to vaccinate school children in Sydney LGAs of concern.
Fearful and anxious
Families and advocacy groups are increasingly worried about the situation.
There are heightened concerns for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prisons, who represent 29 percent of those in custody but just three percent of the general population, and suffer higher rates of chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.
Frustrated and fearful on hearing of her son’s COVID-19 result, Sheree Regan asked to talk to her son but was told this wouldn’t be possible until the end of his 14 days of isolation.
“They [the prisoners] should have been vaccinated when other vulnerable people were vaccinated, especially being in the Sydney hotspot,” she said.
Regan’s fears are echoed by the families of other inmates at Parklea, with a number telling Croakey about their anxieties due to a lack of information, the cutting of families’ contact with prisoners, failure to vaccinate their loved ones, lockdown restrictions, and worries about the provision of medical care.
Kat Pretty’s 20-year-old son, also at Parklea, was offered his first jab of Pfizer last week, a move she says came “pretty late” into Sydney’s ten weeks of lockdown.
“I am really concerned about him,” she told Croakey. “He is locked in for 23 and a half hours a day. He has a cellmate who is mentally very unwell and unmedicated, and violent and aggressive.”
Pretty is critical of health and welfare provision at the jail, saying prisoners don’t get proper medical care and mental healthcare, and that she had to fight to get medication for her son, who is autistic and has ADHD.
“It’s barbaric. You have a melting pot of really unwell people who are largely untreated for a whole raft of conditions.”
Croakey has also been told of another man at Parklea who remained unvaccinated at the end of August and whose regular healthcare had been disrupted. His regular dose of opioid blocking medication – to treat a heroin addiction – was given a week late after being told the nurses were ‘too busy’.
His partner, who wants to remain anonymous, said any delay with the opioid blocking medication makes the man very sick and that he had become very stressed.
“It was quite frustrating not getting any information from Parklea. There were a couple of days where they were stuck in a cell for 24 hours without any break.”
She said families knew about COVID-19 being in the jail before the media and that she had told her partner about the outbreak, news that left him increasingly anxious.
“I have got to be strong for him. I can’t crumble if he’s crumbling. He’s allowed to blow up and I need to be stronger because there is a lot to deal with.
“If we’re struggling out here, imagine what his mental health is like being locked up in there. That is just not acceptable,” she said.
Questions and concerns
Adele Graham’s husband is a minimum-security prisoner at Parklea, and recently received his first dose of vaccine.
Active on social media support prisoner support groups, Graham said she first heard about the COVID-19 outbreak at the jail through Facebook posts on August 24.
“It’s a very anxious time for families,” she said.
“They are not getting answers or information or being told a definitive yes or no about whether their partner, husband or son has been exposed to the virus.”
Graham questions Parklea assurances that everyone transferred from the facility to other prisons around the state had tested negative for COVID-19.
Corrective Services NSW told Croakey all inmates who were transferred from Parklea Correctional Centre prior to it being locked down were isolated and tested for COVID-19 and had returned negative results. Transfers have also been reduced, with only those deemed critical to safety allowed to go ahead.
However, Graham wants an independent inquiry into the transfers, fearing a lot of regional communities don’t have the capacity to look after people if COVID takes hold.
She said there was a lot of uncertainty about the status of inmates who had been transferred around the state and that, as a result, many prisoners had been placed in isolation pods.
“Some of them aren’t getting out at all. It’s a 24/7 lockdown with no access to any phone calls or communication with the outside world.
“It’s horrible and I’m hearing similar things from inmates across the state, where they haven’t been told why they are being locked in,” she said.
At Bathurst jail, where prisoners have also tested positive, another of Sheree Regan’s sons has also been in lockdown and hasn’t been able to shower for several days.
A third son in custody at Silverwater Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre (MRRC) is in a similar situation – in lockdown and cut off from family contact at the time Croakey spoke to Regan.
Croakey has also been told of a 24-year-old man – also at Silverwater MRRC – who was awaiting vaccination at the end of last week despite four requests for the jab.
His mother, Wiradjuri woman Kylie Hughes, hasn’t spoken to her son since August 27. She has since been told by Justice Health that any prisoner wanting vaccination can get it, but she doesn’t know when that will be.
Hughes said her son – who suffers from underlying mental health issues – has been in lockdown since getting a new cellmate who’d been transferred from Parklea and is quite distressed and fearful of getting COVID.
“He’s a sitting duck because they can’t isolate or socially distance. They aren’t supplied with face masks or hand sanitiser, and we’re not allowed send face masks.
“It’s really like a nightmare. It’s heartbreaking. You just wait every day to get a phone call to say that something has gone wrong.
“I’ve tried to find out what’s going on with him. I’ve rung and I’ve asked and been told ‘we can’t tell you that information’.”
Hughes argues that transfers should have been stopped a long time ago and that vaccination should be mandatory for all prison staff.
Sheree Regan backs mandatory staff immunisation, saying she fears they are the ones bringing the virus into facilities from the community.
A 66-year-old inmate at the South Coast Correctional Facility at Nowra, who is still waiting vaccination despite requesting AstraZeneca two months ago, told his wife of his worries about unvaccinated prison officers at the centre.
“They are in and out mixing with their community. It’s just inevitable that it’s going to get in there and it will go crazy if it does.”
His wife, who wants to remain anonymous, said he was placed in isolation for 17 days after an earlier COVID scare.
“He’s only in for six months, and if he catches COVID while he is in there – which is if very likely because it’s spreading like wildfire – it might turn into a death sentence.”
Another woman, who also wanted to remain anonymous, told Croakey that her husband, in a minimum-security prison at the privately-run Junee jail in the state’s south, put his name down for vaccination a couple of months ago but was still waiting at the end of August.
Asked how he was feeling, she said her husband feared that after prison had “taken his soul, now COVID will take his life”.
“I worry because I know what they [the prison authorities] are like, ‘You don’t get told anything’. When you ring, they say everything is under control or we can’t tell you anything.
“I’m very fearful. Going to jail should not be a death sentence and it shouldn’t be a permanent impairment sentence either.”
Human Rights Watch researcher Sophie McNeill, who put Croakey in contact with the families of prisoners, said it is alarming vaccination rates are so low in NSW facilities.
“Human Rights watch has done the work on how devastating COVID is to prison populations around the world. The warnings were there but not heeded in NSW.”
“The forgotten people”
The families who spoke to Croakey repeatedly told of inadequate health services in correctional facilities, fearing this would only get worse in the face of the COVID outbreak.
Adele Graham said medication was often denied or given incorrectly at Parklea.
“They are not forthcoming with treatment. I just think they don’t want to cop the expense”.
Citing the case of an inmate who is a chronic asthmatic, she said he had to get medication from a cellmate after being denied it by prison authorities.
Graham said the prisoner had now tested positive for COVID-19 and, to her knowledge, is being treated at the facility.
The woman whose husband is in Junee jail is dismissive of the healthcare in the jail system, saying prisoners “have to put in a form to get a Panadol”.
She said her husband had a serious health issue resulting from an accident in February but it still awaiting proper adequate follow up.
“They [the prisoners] are the forgotten people. It was only after news of Parklea got out that journalists started asking questions about these issues.”
Another woman whose partner is in Parklea said the prisoners “weren’t being looked after before COVID and they certainly aren’t now”.
The families have urged the NSW Government to use its special pandemic powers to release people from prisons who are most at risk of health complications from COVID.
Smith said the prisoners eligible for release would have been screened ensure they are low-risk and non-violent.
“If it wasn’t for COVID they would be going out on day release, weekend release or work release.
“So, they could be cooking your food at Parklea markets, or washing your car at a car wash or cutting up meat at an abattoir.
“They work in the community and go back in at night. What’s the difference in sending them home to protect them from COVID, reduce the numbers inside and allow them to finish their sentence at home with monitoring?”
SHINE for Kids
Helping families with children whose parents are in custody, SHINE for Kids has been providing support through connection packages – cards, books and drawing materials – and assisting with Audio Visual Links to replace the face-to-face visit restrictions imposed during the pandemic.
National Operations Manager April Long told Croakey with lockdown, the AV contact has also been blocked, leaving thousands of children with parents in prison totally cut off.
Long said one partner had posted on a Facebook support group about her child’s worry that the father had died because he hadn’t been in contact.
She urged Corrections NSW to introduce in-cell tablets to allow inmates in isolation to contact their families.
“At least they could ring their children and let them know they are OK,” she said.
SHINE has set up a helpline to provide a support, and is fielding questions about how to tell a child their parent has the virus or how to reassure them at this time.
“Families are getting calls from welfare if a loved one has tested positive but they not being given support,” said Long.
There’s an additional concern about housing on release, with families worried they might not know if their loved one has the virus.
“We have a lot of mums and Elders saying they are concerned about the virus being brought home to their families,” said Long.
Better data needed
SHINE operates in 20 of 36 NSW prisons and worked with over 7,000 young people in 2020 and 5,000 families.
Long said there is no accurate data on the number of children with parents in custody in Australia, with some academics estimating around 77,000 children are impacted.
A NSW parliamentary inquiry Support for Children of Imprisoned Parents in New South Wales is currently underway into the impact on children and, among other recommendations, SHINE’s submission calls for better data collection to ensure children are counted and funding boosted to provide more extensive support.
“It always falls on the not-for-profits to provide the services, so we would like to see robust data, so these children are visible and can be provided with support,” Long said.
“We know children with a parent in prison have lower educational attainment, are more likely to have chronic illnesses and disabilities, and more likely to end up in custody themselves.”
Long added that 70 percent of Aboriginal children in the juvenile justice system in NSW have a parent in prison and that is link that needs to be broken.
SHINE’s submission notes that Aboriginal and Torres Strait children experience parental incarceration at a greater rate than non-indigenous Australians, and that the “over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women within the female prison population is of serious concern”.
It states that “continued silence on this issue is costly – we cannot afford to ignore the link that multiple systems have and are continuing to fail the most vulnerable people in our community”.
Professor Megan Williams, a Wiradjuri health researcher and a contributing editor at Croakey, wants data collected on the length of time prisoners are being kept in isolation and the numbers being confined.
Williams questioned the line between isolation and solitary confinement and called for increased access to telephone calls or video link, and activities and therapeutic care to overcome trauma triggers.
“We must remember these people in prison are family members, people with the right to be treated with respect and access to health care.”
Rehabilitation is supposed to be part of the work of prisons and if this can’t be done, why not release people to safer places – such as home or transitional housing – to reduce the risk of COVID infection, she asked.
*** This article was updated on 7 September to include additional comments ***
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