Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak legal bodies have renewed calls for the Victorian government to release Indigenous inmates from the state's prisons, following a positive COVID-19 test from a prison officer at Ravenhall Correctional Centre.
Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) CEO Nerita Waight said while she understands governments are facing an "unprecedented crisis", they must also take steps to keep people in prison safe.
Ms Waight told NITV News that the lack of clear quarantine protocols for prison officers means they could potentially transmit COVID-19 across prison populations, a scenario that could result in rapid outbreaks.
"By the very nature of that environment, it will spread and if you think about our community in particular, and the health conditions that are very prominent, such as diabetes and other chronic health conditions, we could see deaths in custody," said Ms Waight.
Ravenhall Correctional Facility, Barwon Prison, Hopkins Correctional Centre, Fulham, Langi, Kai Kai and Loddon are al now in lockdown, following the guard's positive COVID-19 test.
Ms Waight said she is concerned the virus will "spread like wildfire", and that any lockdown measures implemented must still comply with human rights requirements.
"Could you imagine a prisoner, who has PTSD and trauma related mental health issues being confined to their cell day in and day out, for an indefinite period of time and the toll that would take, and how that could worsen their mental health and perhaps then lead to a death in custody" she said.
"That just isn't reasonable to my mind."
NATSILS co-chair Cheryl Axelby said any potential COVID-19 outbreak in prisons would disproportionately impact the most vulnerable people.
“Victoria is at risk of a severe prison outbreak," she said. "COVID-19 will impact our imprisoned children and adults the hardest because many of them are already chronically ill, are living with disability or they are parents with children who depend on them.
"We’re also concerned about the human rights compliance of lockdown restrictions, especially isolation.
Ms Axleby said releasing imprisoned people was "a practical, smart and evidence-based solution to stop the spread of COVID-19 and ensure there are sufficient hospital beds for everyone who urgently needs them.”
Calls for the release of inmates in prisons across the country were first raised in April. Ms Waight said she is concerned governments have waited too long to act on these calls.
"We understand that they're worried about survivors and victim rights, but we're also living in exceptional times that require exceptional responses, and those responses must be timely and effective" she said.
"Releasing people from custody and implementing strategies for decarceration is crucial in ensuring the safety of all Victorians, including survivors and victims.
"The pandemic is a crisis that has highlighted the many holes in our social safety net and we should see this as a moment of crisis and opportunity to address some of those persistent issues and shortcomings in the criminal legal system, especially when the health and livelihoods of Victorians can be protected through criminal justice reform."