By Margaret Howkins*
Civil Liberties Australia has received letters from prisoners nationwide over the past two weeks, exposing the lack of preparation inside jails to cope with the Covid-19 crisis.
The conditions do not meet UN standards that Australia formally adopted in December 2017, prisoners say.
And now islands, military bases and city centre hotels – acting as Covid-19 temporary detention/quarantine centres – will all have to meet the same UN standards as well.
All “quarantine” localities will fall under the OPCAT jurisdiction, the UN says. That includes Rottnest Island, probably military bases and ships…and the hotels being commandeered by state governments to lockdown flight arrivals from overseas.
Inmates describe the conditions inside existing Australian prisons as extremely dangerous. “This place is a perfect breeding ground for mass infection and multiple deaths,” one prisoner wrote.
Prisoners say the conditions contravene state and territory prison and corrective services Acts. They say they are clearly contrary to the UN’s Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT).
Australia is a signatory to OPCAT: the federal government and each state and territory has formally signed on to abide by its rules.
But, prisoners say, there are major breaches taking place. Double the number of prisoners cram into tiny cells. Prisons in Queensland are operating at 130% capacity across the board: where there should be only 6000 prisoners, there are currently 9000.
Other states and territories have similar problems, either in their main jails or in juvenile detention centres, or both
In most prisons, only one doctor is available, frequently after 24 hours of waiting, usually in pain. “One Panadol is the cure-all,” prisoners say.
One Panadol will not meet Australia’s international obligations to prisoners and quarantined detainees.
The UN says formally, in a document released on 25 March 2020, that:
‘Prisoners should enjoy the same standards of health care
that are available in the community…’
“The Nelson Mandela Rules make it clear that ‘… Prisoners should enjoy the same standards of health care that are available in the community, and should have access to necessary health-care services free of charge without discrimination on the grounds of their legal status’.
“The prohibition of torture, cruel inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment cannot be derogated from, even during exceptional circumstances and emergencies which threaten the life of the nation.
“…any place where a person is held in quarantine and from which they are not free to leave is a place of deprivation of liberty for the purposes of the OPCAT.
“…all other places from which persons are prevented from leaving for similar purposes fall within the scope of the OPCAT mandate.
“…quarantine imposed for the public benefit…must not result in the ill-treatment of those detained: sufficient and appropriate measures should be put in place in order to prevent violations of the prohibition of ill-treatment,” the UN document says.
The UN urges states to:
“Place particular emphasis on places of detention where occupancy exceeds the official capacity, and where the official capacity is based on square metre-age per person which does not permit social distancing in accordance with the standard guidance given to the general population .”
In WA jails, the only measure apparently being taken to ward off Covid-19 is apparently A4 signs scattered around prisons, inmates say.
They are asking for:
a. lowest risk prisoners be released to isolate themselves.
b. a single cell for each and every prisoner.
c. basic hygiene resources for each cell.
d. tents or huts provided in the grounds or in nearby bush for isolation.
While NSW has committed to reducing prison numbers, it has released no clear details of how, who and how many will be released.
Will prisons cost lives?
Throughout Australia, CLA has been told by prisoners that: “COST – it would cost too much” – is the repeated response to prisoners’ requests for protection from the pandemic. The inmates believe prisoners are being effectively told by officers that their lives are worth less than other people’s.
Prisoners point out that many of them have been convicted on shabby, negligible evidence by corrupt or careless police and lawyers…and people “outside” should be aware this can happen to anyone, suddenly.
(A recent CLA study indicates that some 6% of prisoners in Australian jails for major crimes – murder, rape, gross bodily harm – may be wrongly convicted. For lesser crimes, the figure may rise to 10% of prisoners being innocent).
Prisoners writing from WA jails have said that a class action for medical neglect and civil compensation is inevitable if there are mass deaths in the state’s prisons. The same could be said for prisons – and quarantine locations – throughout Australia.
OPCAT notification: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/OPCAT/Pages/OPCATIndex.aspx
* Margaret Howkins is a Director of Civil Liberties Australia, based in Perth, WA.
CLA Civil Liberties Australia A04043
Box 3080 Weston Creek ACT 2611 Australia
Email: secretary [at] cla.asn.au