• NATSILS is calling for the release of vulnerable and low-risk prisoners to stop the spread of Coronavirus (AAP)Source: AAP
The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) has called for the release of vulnerable and low-risk prisoners to prevent 'black deaths in custody from COVID-19'.
Keira Jenkins

8 Apr 2020 - 5:37 PM  UPDATED 8 Apr 2020 - 5:37 PM

NATSILS is calling on governments to release people from prison, starting with First Nations prisoners, who are among the most vulnerable, to stop the spread of COVID-19.

NATSILS executive director Roxanne Moore told NITV News that an outbreak in prisons is not a matter of 'if' but 'when', and governments need to act now before it's too late.

"It's only a matter of time before the Coronavirus pandemic is rife in prisons and we know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more vulnerable and more at-risk," she said.

"We want governments to do everything they can to prevent a black death in custody from COVID-19 and that includes the immediate release of First Nations people in prison.

"We want priority given to those most at risk, so our mob who are ill, who have a disability, who have mental health issues, our women and children.

"We want to make sure that they have priority for release, as well as those on remand, those with six months or less to serve and people who are eligible for early release.

"We've seen globally that governments are taking this step to contain the virus." 

There has already been reports of correctional officers who have contracted the virus.

Ms Moore said in a prison environment COVID-19 will spread quickly, with devastating results. 

"Once Coronavirus gets into prisons it's absolutely going to spread like wildfire," she said.

"We have seen that happening globally, in New York, Indonesia, all across the world. Countries like Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom are all releasing prisoners because it is the sensible thing to do to contain this virus.

"It is what all of our communities need to contain the spread of COVID-19. It's happening all over the world and Australia needs to take their lead.

"We've seen in NSW some legislation has passed but we need to make sure First Nations people are getting priority for release and we need to make sure that other state and territory governments are following the lead of NSW and making sure that they're putting laws in place so they can release prisoners."

'How will they cope?'

Makayla Reynolds' brother, Nathan, died in prison when he had an asthma attack in 2018. She's also concerned that the prison system won't be able to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak.

"I'm really worried about what will happen and how prisons will cope," she told NITV News.

"If the prison couldn't cope with my brother's medical emergency back then, how on earth will they cope with the medical emergency of COVID-19.

"My brother was a proud Aboriginal man and loving father. He couldn't survive the conditions of a minimum security prison."

Ms Reynolds has started a petition online, calling for measures to stop Indigenous people dying in prison from COVID-19. 

" It took 40 minutes from the first call of help for someone to arrive, despite the pleas and screams of the young men around him," she said.

"But it was too late for my brother.  COVID-19 is a pandemic that will impact everyone but the most at-risk are people like my brother - Aboriginal, chronically ill and incarcerated.

"I want to make sure no other family has to go through what I have."

'Before it's too late'

Ms Reynolds wants to see at-risk prisoners released to avoid Coronavirus-related deaths in prisons.

"We need people home with families," she said.

"It must be a priority. The sick, old, women, kids, are the most at-risk. Governments have to act today, before it's too late."

Ms Moore agreed, saying it must be a priority to make sure everyone plays their part to keep the prison population at a minimum.

"If we're going to beat Coronavirus, we're going to need everyone to play their part in this and that includes police, the courts and governments," she said.

"What we've seen so far as the response from prisons is just to go into lockdown and we're really concerned that human rights are being breached in those situations. 

"Lockdown isn't the answer, decarceration is, and what we need to see from police is them stopping the flow of people into the justice system.

"That means focusing on diversion and giving warnings to people for low-level offences. It means relying on all of the diversionary options available.

"It means having a moratorium on executing warrants for low-level offences for a six month period."

'How are prisons going to cope?': Fears for Indigenous inmates amid coronavirus outbreak
The risks of COVID-19 are greater for Indigenous people, who account for one in four of the adult prisoner population.