NSW prison officers are warning jails could become superspreader sites as they beg for more on-site COVID-19 vaccinations, as justice organisations ask for prisoners to be released to reduce the risk.
A number of prisoners have tested positive for the virus in recent days, prompting fears that jail could see major outbreaks.
Four men at Sydney's Silverwater prison have tested positive, including two who were sent to Sydney from Bathurst Correctional Centre.
They are being held at an isolation hub. Investigations are underway into how they contracted the virus. Impacted staff have been told to get tested and isolate, a Corrective Services NSW spokesman says.
The Public Service Association says there is an urgent need for another round of on-site vaccinations for prison staff to prevent mass spread of the virus.
NSW Health has rejected the union's requests, they say.
Many guards were confused by the mixed messaging about the AstraZeneca vaccine early on in the rollout, but were now eager to be jabbed, said PSA president Nicole Jess.
"Prison is up there with as a super-spreading environment. Once it gets in to the main population you're in real trouble," Ms Jess said.
"But it is preventable - we need jabs in prisons now. It's simple as that."
The union claims that officers who missed out on a first round of vaccinations have been told they need to see a GP or go to a vaccination hub to get their jabs.
But particularly in regional NSW, members have told the union they've had trouble accessing the vaccine despite being a priority eligibility group.
The rising COVID-19 risk in the regions has led to greater competition for appointments, Ms Jess says.
Prisoners have been offered vaccinations, but not all have taken it up, she says.
The union is warning that a large outbreak could put significant pressure on the prison system and the hospital system.
And they say that staff attempts to manage COVID-19 risk using lockdown and rigorous isolation measures has led to significant tensions within the prisoner population.
"Prison officers want to be vaccinated, and for the stability of our corrections systems they need to be vaccinated, urgently," Ms Jess said.
"Effectively the government is telling them they've had their chance and now it's on to them to sort it out. But it was the government's changing advice that caused delays in the first place."
Meanwhile, justice organisations are calling for prisoners to be released to address the COVID-19 risk.
Aboriginal organisation Deadly Connections says the Pfizer vaccine must also be made available to people in prisons, and rapid antigen testing be given to corrections workers.
"Before we see a humanitarian crisis unfold in Australia's prisons, the NSW government must take urgent action to protect people in prisons from the virus," said National Justice Project CEO George Newhouse.
Professor Thalia Anthony of the University of Technology Sydney said the Corrective Services Commissioner should use his discretion to release people to reduce the threat of outbreaks in prisons.
NSW Health has been contacted for comment.
Australian Associated Press