Hundreds of legal and medical experts across Australia have signed an open letter calling for the release of prisoners amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Former Victorian Labor attorney general Rob Hulls, high profile barristers Robert Richter QC and Julian McMahon SC, and ex-NSW mental health commissioner John Feneley are among nearly 400 individuals calling on states and territories to protect vulnerable prisoners.
There are currently no confirmed cases in Australian prisons, but there are concerns it could spread quickly if introduced.
“The current information is that there is a risk to life and health in prisons and youth detention centres, which in turn creates risks for the wider community,” the letter says.
It calls on all states and territories to pass legislation allowing particularly vulnerable prisoners to walk free “where it is safe to do so”.
The campaign is being led by barrister Felicity Gerry QC and law professors Thalia Anthony and Lorana Bartels.
“Prisoners are genuinely in fear of COVID-19 and that fear is not limited to the idea that it would spread, it’s that they’re not able to practice the public health measures the rest of us are,” Ms Gerry told AAP on Wednesday.
Among those the letter seeks to be released are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, women, children and those with six months or less remaining on their sentence, and people with respiratory illnesses, addiction and mental health concerns.
The letter also urges governments to introduce virus testing programs across all prisons and youth detention centres, the hospitalisation or urgent medical treatment of anyone with symptoms and independent monitoring of the situation by health and criminal justice experts.
Ms Gerry said state and territory governments should form expert-based taskforces to follow a “roadmap” of advice presented with the letter.
“This needs preparation and planning … nobody has thought about the prisons until now,” she said.
The NSW state government put forward legislation last month allowing for the release of some prisoners.
But Ms Gerry was critical of delays, saying “those releases don’t appear to be happening at all quickly”.
A Victorian government spokesperson told AAP state and federal health experts are consulting with independent bodies that oversee the justice system.
“There are established processes for preventing and managing communicable diseases in custody, including isolation protocols,” they said.
“Prison health and custodial staff in the Corrections and Youth Justice system have been briefed on coronavirus symptoms and potential risks and procedures for managing the virus.”
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