No outbreaks: How Victoria bucked international trends and stopped COVID spreading in prisons

By David Donaldson

Monday February 8, 2021

(AAP Image/Joe Castro)

Some of the changes forced onto Victoria’s prison system by the pandemic have led to better services that will endure into the future, says Corrections Victoria Acting Commissioner Larissa Strong. Advocates hope the experience will lead to deeper shifts.

Statistics from the United States make clear just how much of a threat the coronavirus is to prisoners: according to the COVID prisons project, there have been nearly 370,000 cases in America’s prisons, with 2256 inmate deaths and 140 staff deaths.

Yet Australia has done remarkably well at keeping the pandemic out of its gaols.

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“Certainly in Victoria and I’m pretty sure in all other Australian states and territories, there was no prisoner-to-prisoner transmission of COVID or staff-to-prisoner transmission of COVID,” says Larissa Strong, acting commissioner of Corrections Victoria.

So far 24 Victorian prisoners have tested positive on their way into the detention system, either in police cells or in Corrections’ quarantine system.

“All of them were men, they were all pretty much young men and most of them were asymptomatic they didn’t even know that they had it,” Strong told a recent Melbourne University panel discussion on detention and the pandemic.

Four cases were detected in prisons that appeared to be false positives. Six staff have also recorded infections.

Preventing COVID entering Victoria’s 11 public and three private prisons, and stopping any further transmission if it did, has “impacted all of our decision making” since March, says Strong.

This led to some changes in how things were done.

The need for increased cleaning led Corrections Victoria to quickly contract a lot of cleaners, but this gave way to another approach. “As we learned about some of the experiences with hotel quarantine we shifted and we trained our prisoners to do the COVID cleaning in the areas that prisoners can go,” she explained. This prevented cleaners bringing in the virus accidentally, and gave prisoners an opportunity to develop work skills.

Corrections has changed how it releases people into the community, to minimise risk as they head out into the pandemic. A dedicated transport service was set up so people wouldn’t have to catch public transport. Special accommodation for COVID-positive releasees has given people a place to stay without putting their family at risk. The former Maribyrnong detention facility was set up as a transitional support centre for men at risk of homelessness during the pandemic, and is still operating.

Face-to-face visits for people in custody were suspended on March 21. At the same time, Corrections rolled out 200 tablets to allow family connections to continue virtually.

“Prisoners have actually loved that,” says Strong. “Prisoners reported they could see their dog, they could see their kid doing homework at the dining room table. So we’ve had a really positive response.”

The technology has allowed more visits than previously occurred, with 60,000 additional visits occurring over Zoom between May and November 2020 when compared to face-to-face visits at the same time the previous year.

Virtual contact has also worked “really well” for some services. Nearly all court appearances have taken place online, which has been appreciated by prisoners.

“What you hear from prisoners is when I go to court, I have to wake up at six in the morning, I have to wait in a long line for the bus that picks up everyone else and then I’m held in a cell with people that I don’t know, or that I don’t like. I’m stressed, if I get bad news I go back to the cell and I’m waiting, I’ve got no phone to call anyone. I have to wait in a van. I get strip searched on the way in and out.

“But if I go to telecourt, it’s half an hour out of my day. If I get bad news, I’ve got my mates around me and I can talk to them about it.”

These experiences have prompted questions about how to do things better in the long term — while in-person visits will remain, they could be supplemented with remote visits. “It kind of prompted us to move more quickly than we would have otherwise,” says Strong.

What worked

Strong identified a range of factors that enabled Victoria’s prison system to avoid any outbreaks.

“It was actually quite hairy in wave two and it was a busy process,” says Strong.

But luck and preparation pulled them through.

“The preparation and the planning that was done in February was really critical — the fact that we had tested our systems.”

The crisis meant normal processes had to be expedited, with decisions sometimes having to be made in “minutes”. Fast precautionary responses were needed when staff tested positive, for example, and straightforward accountability structures enabled the agency to remain responsive.

“It was pretty clear — we had one line of responsibility, which was through the commissioner to the secretary. This wasn’t a time for matrix accountability. It was a bit of a command and control structure.”

A dedicated staff taskforce was established, which was “absolutely integral”.

“There is no way people can do this on top of a normal job. We needed a group where we would all know who to go to, who would coordinate it, lead it, talk to the general managers, to the teams in prisons, talk to the executive, and really be that one point of focus for all things to do with Covid-19. That was a critical factor in that process.”

Corrections Victoria worked with Justice Health and the Department of Human Services, but DHHS was busy with a lot of other things at the height of the pandemic, so having some in-house health expertise was useful.

“To make sure we had quick access, we had our own infection consultant who would come in and do site visits and check that we had our donning and doffing stations put in the right place and staff knew how to use those sorts of procedures,” she explains.

Corrections also required staff to wear masks before the general community had to. It’s important to verify policies are being correctly implemented on the ground though, says Strong — you don’t want prison guards wearing masks under their noses.

“When you look at a prison system, 16 sites and thousands of staff, you’re only as strong as your weakest link.”

A decreasing prison population

One of the interesting impacts of the pandemic has been a significant drop in prison populations.

There are 12% fewer people in Victoria’s gaols now than 12 months ago. A similar trend has played out in New South Wales, which has seen an 11% fall.

Partly this was because lockdown meant fewer crimes were being committed, but faced with the public health threat of so many people in close quarters, governments also made decisions to release prisoners early. NSW passed legislation allowing inmates to be released on early parole, and Corrections Victoria has used existing legislation to grant early release.

There were large numbers of people out in the community who would otherwise have been in prison during the pandemic “and we saw a decrease in crime over this period”, says Mindy Sotiri, executive director of the Justice Reform Initiative.

“I think what the decarceration did show us is that over-incarceration really is a policy choice”, she told the event.

“It’s not an inevitability and it’s not a wicked policy problem. We can see significant reduction in the reliance on prisons occurring with absolutely no impact on public safety. … The thing that’s actually required to drive change is political will.”

This experience demonstrated how threadbare much of the service system catering to vulnerable people is, however, prompting some to wonder whether “people might be better off in prison than they would be homeless in the community”, Sotiri noted. Homelessness organisations were concerned about whether they would be able to cope with an increase in the number of inmates released.

“I think what this tells us and what COVID highlighted is that we’ve got an enormous problem if we’ve come to rely so heavily on incarceration of populations who we know have so often experience significant disadvantage,” she says.

“So of course during COVID we had people leaving prison into homelessness. But we always have people leaving prison into homelessness. We had people leaving prison with half a Centrelink cheque and nowhere to go, as we always do. We had people who desperately needed help and had no-one to speak to, as we always do. We had people with a desperate need for mental health and AOD and disability services, as we do. We had a desperate need for culturally safe support and Aboriginal-led support for Aboriginal communities, as we always do.

“So in one sense there was a half-appetite for decarceration, but on the other hand there was almost nothing shifting in the community in terms of resourcing to actually make decarceration a possibility.”

This emphasised the need for justice reform to occur in tandem with social services reform, Sotiri argues.

“The fact of the pandemic and the associated shifts at times to service delivery made it feel like a crisis certainly for people that were working in that space, but the reality is that it’s kind of always a crisis for people leaving prison.”

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