There have been no reported cases of a prisoner or prison guard testing positive to coronavirus in Victoria so far. There were two new cases recorded in the community on Tuesday.
Though Victoria has “flattened the curve”, the lawyers say it would only take one positive test in prison to create an outbreak and put the wider community at risk.
“Victoria is not out of the woods yet. Prisons are a COVID-19 powder keg, for the people trapped in them, the people who work in them and the broader community,” Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer Monique Hurley said.
“To keep people safe, governments must rethink over-crowded prisons and responsibly release certain groups of people.”
Internationally, governments – including in Britain and United States – are moving to thin prison populations to reduce pressure on overloaded health systems during the pandemic.
Human rights lawyers in Australia have been calling for temporary release of people with underlying health conditions, early release for people who are close to finishing their sentence, parole for people convicted of low-level offences who pose a low risk to the community and access to bail for people on remand who are yet to be found guilty.
The Andrews government has resisted these calls, saying Corrections Victoria has processes for preventing and managing diseases, including isolation protocols.
Health experts say prisons are potential hotbeds for the spread of coronavirus because people live and work in such close quarters and staff come and go regularly.
There are about 8100 inmates in Victoria’s prisons.
Fitzroy Legal Service managing lawyer Karen Fletcher said prisoners are at great risk of severe illness or death, with one-third having a chronic medical condition like asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease or diabetes.
This disproportionately impacts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prison, who suffer higher rates of chronic health issues than non-Indigenous people.
“Maintaining overcrowded, unhygienic, neglected prisons, where people come and go all of the time, goes against all of the public health advice,” Ms Fletcher said.
The government was contacted for comment.
Tammy Mills is the legal affairs reporter for The Age.