Emergency plans are in place at Canberra's jail amid the looming spectre of a Covid outbreak after two NSW jails recently recorded cases within their prison population.
Four inmates at Sydney's Silverwater jail and another at Bathurst jail have tested positive in the past few weeks.
At Silverwater, all four were incoming prisoners while at Bathurst the man had been inside the prison and tested whilst in custody, then out on bail when his test results came back positive. This then became an issue for the broader community.
ACT Corrections remains acutely aware of the danger that an outbreak poses to the inmate population given what is being seen locally, and has already been recorded overseas. The ACT Inspector of Correctional Services has also found that physical health of inmates is also poorer that than of the general population, and 66 per cent of the inmates smoke.
In the US during the COVID-19 pandemic's first year, the medical journal The Lancet reported that US prison populations had infection rates five to six times higher than in free-living populations, with mortality rates two to three times higher.
Under Covid outbreak emergency protocols at Canberra's prison, Alexander Maconochie Centre, the detection of a positive case would immediately suspend all travel and transfers.
Corrections said any infected detainee "would be isolated and managed within the AMC, subject to health advice, unless their clinical situation warranted admission to hospital".
In an effort to keep the virus out of the prison system, vaccination rates at Canberra's jail are running ahead of the national average outside, with 61 per cent of detainees receiving their first dose and 55 per cent receiving their second.
All staff at the jail, too, are classed as a 1B community vaccination priority.
Detainees who are new arrivals and not already vaccinated are offered their first dose on arrival and a second dose within the recommended period. If they are released on parole, they are given advice on where and when to receive their second dose.
However, vaccination is not mandatory for neither remand nor sentenced prisoners. Prisoners who are remanded into the jail after committing offences go in with the general population, sharing cells, ablution facilities, eating and communal areas.
Overcrowding of cells has been an intermittent issue with AMC for years and this problem intensified after last November's riot damaged a cell block.
All new admissions to the Alexander Maconochie Centre are screened at the ACT Police Watchhouse and asked standard COVID-19 screening questions.
As at August 5, 235 detainees had been tested for COVID-19 and all had tested negative. This is a little more than half the current prison population.
At the end of June, restrictions on visits to the jail eased so that up to four family members could visit each inmate, with up to 11 prisoners co-mingling with their families at the same time.
But the shutters came down on August 12, with all face-to-face visits suspended and replaced by video calls. This also includes interviews with legal representatives.
Shannon Pickles, one of the official visitors appointed by the ACT government, said he has not been able to enter the prison for some weeks, leaving a vacuum of information provided externally as how the prisoners are coping with the restrictions.
"It was our decision to suspend visits," Mr Pickles said.
"There is still the opportunity for detainees to submit their complaints online to us but that's problematic for many inmates; they much prefer to talk to us face to face and that's not possible at the moment."
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