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With prisoners ‘genuinely frightened’, lawyers push for bail changes

Hundreds of law and health experts have signed open letters urging the states and territories to reduce numbers inside jails by releasing Indigenous and elderly prisoners, people with health problems, women, children in youth detention, those with less than six months to serve and others on remand. The letters say people should be released only “where it is safe to do so”.

NSW has moved to free some prisoners. Victoria’s biggest jails quarantine new prisoners for a fortnight before they enter, some prisons are in partial lockdown, and personal visits are suspended. A source said the situation was calm and well organised.

But barrister Felicity Gerry, QC, said inmates were “genuinely frightened” and experts were concerned by a lack of preparation in Australian prisons.

She said law and health experts wanted to advise government taskforces to prevent the onset of the horror scenarios that have been seen in American prisons, where COVID-19 is widespread and threatens nearby communities. It was time for Australian governments to move past the “tough-on-crime rhetoric”.

“The only solution seems to lock people up in a small room,” Ms Gerry said.

Solicitor advocate Felix Ralph called on the Victorian government to change its bail laws – toughened after James Gargasoulas’ Bourke Street attack in 2017 – to give arresting police and courts greater discretion over having to continually lock up repeat offenders.

“The laws are no longer fit for the purpose,” Mr Ralph said.

“There needs to be a narrower focus on who should be incarcerated and who shouldn’t be.

“This is the time to think creatively, to use the system to protect citizens and to protect the larger population so we don’t have a hot spot. If you’re a virus, a prison is the best place to be.”

Victorian jails hold about 8000 prisoners; one-third are yet to have their cases finalised. The suspension of trials means some will wait two years before facing a jury.

“These people are presumed innocent. We should care if COVID-19 gets in [to prisons] because these people have mums, wives, dads and children, and if it gets in, a lot of people will die,” lawyer Melinda Walker said.

She said some lawyers also felt unsafe when meeting clients at custody centres such as underneath Melbourne Magistrates Court, because of the lack of cleaning in meeting booths. “I don’t feel safe … it’s super stressful,” she said.

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Dorothy’s son, who has health and respiratory problems, plans to plead not guilty to a serious crime and will seek bail next week.

Social distancing was impossible when her son and another prisoner were locked in the same cell for 20 hours each day. “We don’t have to treat them like animals,” she said.

Lawyers and health experts also want more testing in jails, urgent medical help for anyone who displays symptoms, independent monitoring of responses and a better flow of information. The strain on video link facilities limits the contact prisoners have with their lawyers and families.

A Victorian government spokeswoman said there were established processes for “preventing and managing communicable diseases”.

“We are already implementing and continue to work through operational and policy changes to manage challenges resulting from coronavirus,” she said.

“All measures are being informed by state and federal health experts in close consultation with a range of independent bodies who oversee the justice system.”

Victorian Victims of Crime Commissioner Fiona McCormack said the crisis was an unprecedented challenge.

“We need to weigh up the implications on the health system if COVID-19 were to sweep through the prison population against the negative, and potentially devastating, impact that early releases could have on victims of crime and on the safety of the community,” Ms McCormack said.

If you or anyone you know needs support call Lifeline on 131 114, or Beyond Blue’s coronavirus mental wellbeing support service on 1800 512 348.

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