• Sisters Inside advocate Deb Kilroy and Indigenous activist Boneta-Marie Mabo tested positive for COVID-19 last month (Twitter)Source: Twitter
After recovering from COVID-19 the CEO of Sisters Inside, Debbie Kilroy, says she is concerned about how it will affect the most vulnerable in our communities, including people in prison.
Keira Jenkins

15 Apr 2020 - 12:37 PM  UPDATED 15 Apr 2020 - 12:37 PM

Sisters Inside CEO Debbie Kilroy tested positive for Coronavirus after returning from the US last month.

She spent 25 days in isolation with Boneeta-Marie Mabo, who had travelled with Ms Kilroy and also tested positive to COVID-19, recovering from the virus, including a week in the hospital.

Pair diagnosed with COVID-19 after sharing flight with Dutton
Indigenous rights activist Boneta-Marie Mabo and Sisters Inside advocate Deb Kilroy have been diagnosed with coronavirus after sharing a flight with Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.

Ms Kilroy told NITV News having Coronavirus was like a "rollercoaster ride".

"I would start feeling well, and then I'd crash and burn and get really sick again and then feel well," said Ms Kilroy. "Yeah, it was up and down. When I was down, I was really, really sick, and when I was okay, I was feeling okay."

"It's quite scary. We were the first two to be supported in the community - when we got back, we were told to self-isolate in the community.

"They didn't admit us to the hospital. They admitted us a week later because I was getting sicker. It was easier to admit us both.

"We would watch the news, 24/7, because it was new in Australia, we had a Prime Minister saying the weekend that we got back 'don't worry, you can go to the footy, you can go to church', and it was like 'oh my god are you kidding me'. 

"Then, within a week, everything came to a great stop, as it needed to be and probably should have been weeks earlier."



Following her recovery, Ms Kilroy said she is now concerned about how the virus will spread among vulnerable people, including people in prison.

She said more needs to be done to protect people in prison.

"When we know that people in prison, particularly women in prison, have worse health than women in the free world," said Ms Kilroy.

"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have more health issues due to colonisation and the ongoing colonising project and trauma that's been inflicted from invasion through to today, generations on so that they're a more vulnerable group.

"And we know that there's mass incarceration of Aboriginal people, so we're going to see more black deaths in custody once the virus is in.

"We know that prisons are overcrowded so they can't physically distance or socially distance. People here in Queensland and other jurisdictions have to buy their own soap.

"People have been asking for cleaning products, but they're not really getting enough cleaning products. There's units where there's 50 cells in a men's prison and 75 men.

"I was talking to a man from prison this afternoon, and he's in a six-cell unit with eight men, so there's two men sleeping on the floors.

"They're very much in contact with each other. Prison officers and any other essential staff are walking in and out of that prison every day.

"They will be the carriers, and they will pass it on."



Ms Kilroy said this means it's not a matter of 'if' COVID-19 gets into prisons, but 'when'.

"If you look around the world, there's numerous countries now where the virus is affecting people in the prison system at a greater rate than in the community," she said.

"People are dying rapidly in prison because they're like incubators. When you think about those cruise ships and how it spreads - prisons are the same.

"They're actually locked down so once the virus gets in it will spread like wildfire."

'A death penalty'

Ms Kilroy said the current measures in place to try to stop the spread of the virus in prisons were inadequate, with some in breach of human rights conventions.

"We know that here in Queensland that if anyone comes into the prison, they're isolating those people for 14 days with no contact," said Ms Kilroy.

"Even breaching human rights conventions, where they're not even allowed an hour out in daylight. They're in solitary confinement for 24 hours, 14 days before they're actually released into the mainstream population. 

"The problem is not going to be people who come into the prison that are remanded in custody or sentenced or there for breaches of parole that will pass the virus on because they are getting isolated.

"It's going to be the prison staff, the correctional staff that actually brings it in and once it hits there it's going to spread like wildfire."

Ms Kilroy called on the release of people from prison, especially those most vulnerable to Coronavirus, and people who are on remand.

"In the vulnerable groups that have been identified by chief health officials - anybody with respiratory illnesses, Aboriginal people over 50, other people over 60, 70," said Ms Kilroy.

"We could actually empty the prison system out fairly quickly, considering also that 40 per cent of people in prison are on remand.

"They could be given bail and put in hotels and paid for by the government like they are doing for all the privileged people that are coming in from overseas that are Australians. 

"Let's look after our most vulnerable. We don't have a death penalty in this country, but COVID-19 will be a death penalty, and more so for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our prisons as soon as it hits there."

NATSILS call for prisoners to be released to prevent Coronavirus-related deaths in custody
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'.