Three prisoners at Canberra's jail have been isolated with flu-like symptoms as concerns deepen over the enormous health and security implications of a COVID-19 outbreak behind bars.
The three prisoners, whose gender was not revealed, were isolated because they had been in contact with other inmates with flu-like symptoms.
However at this time, there have been no positive tests for the coronavirus at the Alexander Maconochie Centre.
The ACT is being urged to take the national lead in fast-tracking a radical solution to easing the ominous prospect of the COVID-19 coronavirus reaching into Canberra's overcrowded prison.
A group of prominent criminal justice and health professionals has urged the ACT government to act swiftly on identifying prisoners that can be released now, without harm to the community, to deliver a national test case for the release of prisoners.
Canberra is seen as perfectly placed to deliver a national test case.
Dr Lorana Bartels, professor and program leader of criminology at the Australian National University, who coordinated the push for the urgent policy change, said while there were complexities involved, it was only a matter of when, not if, the COVID-19 virus began to infect prison populations.
Healthcare systems inside Australia's prisons, including the ACT's, are already overburdened and prison populations have high rates of chronic diseases such as hepatitis. Compared with the wider population there are many people with disabilities and drug addiction issues.
In court on Monday, Canberra Barrister Steven Whybrow described the prison as a "land-based cruise ship" in arguing for one of his clients to be granted bail to self-isolate and live effectively under house arrest in Kambah.
Delays to trials are now occurring which increases the risk as people refused bail and held on on remand within the overcrowded maximum security prison.
Canberra does not have a separate remand centre. It has one prison currently holding around 470 male and female unsentenced (remandee) and sentenced prisoners in a single security centre, which is already operating beyond its designed capacity.
Most prisoners are double-bunked in cells of around nine square metres.
Visitors are now prevented from entering Canberra's Alexander Maconochie Centre to prevent the risk of infection to detainees.
However, custodial staff regularly rotate on shifts in and out of the prison and new prisoners are continually entering the jail. Significantly, 93 per cent of new prisoners and 39 per cent of the total population at the Alexander Maconochie Centre are unsentenced.
Professor Bartels said Canberra's relatively small prison population offered the opportunity for the ACT to act swiftly to ease the population pressure internally and prevent a health crisis inside the jail.
There were over 370 signatories to the open letter which called for the release of prisoners who met certain requirements, such as those at a high risk of harm from COVID-19; children and young people; those detained for summary offences (such as unlawful driving and public disorder); non-violent drug offences; and those due for release in the next six months.
"The ACT can potentially lead the way by supporting bail and non-custodial penalties for all defendants who do not present a high risk to the community," Dr Bartels said.
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The ACT does have intensive correction orders, a custodial sentence served in the community under strict conditions, but this requires a lengthy assessment period.
A fast-tracked judicial system would be required for this option to be used.
Electronic ankle bracelets which geo-tag offenders in other jurisdictions were previously trialled in the ACT, then discarded.
"As this pandemic widens, the risk for prison populations goes up exponentially," Dr Bartels said.
"Jury trials are already being suspended in some jurisdictions. If this happens here too, unsentenced prisoners will be kept in prison for even longer. We also need to remember they are entitled to the presumption of innocence".
Julie Tongs, the head of the Winnunga Aboriginal Health Service which delivers health care to indigenous prisoners, said she would be supportive of a scheme which gets vulnerable indigenous prisoners at risk of contracting the virus out of prison and back into their community before they become infected.
"One Aboriginal person who came out of prison infected would present a huge risk to a large number of their people and extended family," she said.
"It would be far better to act sooner rather than later on something like this."
ACT's Corrections Commissioner Jon Peach has acknowledged the letter from the group and said he would be happy to discuss these matters further.
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