Potential Disproportionate Effect Of COVID-19 On Incarcerated Indigenous Australians

Lawyers from Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT (ALSNSW/ACT) have successfully fought in court for the early release of an Aboriginal dad in custody, whose underlying health condition puts him at severe risk should he contract the COVID-19 virus. The win for ALSNSW/ACT lawyers comes after emergency powers were afforded to the Commissioner for Corrective Services NSW to release low risk and vulnerable inmates from prisons in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. The ALSNSW/ACT campaign to release vulnerable Indigenous peoples from prisons is led by ALS staff member and Gamilaraay woman, Makayla Reynolds, whose brother died in prison in 2018 from an asthma attack.

A quote from the soon-to-be-released Aboriginal dad, published on ALSNSW/ACT’s most recent campaign update, relayed the concerns he felt for himself, and still feels for fellow inmates. “My dad died young- I’m right in the middle of these old fellas- if someone gets it, we all get it- they won’t be able to look after us- I’m scared I’m going to get sick and die.”

Concerns have been raised surrounding the containment of the COVID-19 virus within prisons, overcrowding, and conditions for prisoners who are in lockdown amidst the pandemic. In addition to announcing the success of the Aboriginal dad’s forthcoming release, Ms. Reynolds stated that while prisons were making attempts to contain the spread of the virus, “This fulla was essentially in lock-down without access to: a shower for over 10 days; visitors; medical treatment nor recreational activities and programs.” The bleak picture painted within this statement raises concerns regarding prisons’ abilities across Australia to adequately manage the spread of the virus with current resources available. It, along with the death of Ms. Reynolds’ brother, also provide cause to question the standard of care afforded to Indigenous Australians in incarceration.

The disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous Australians is considered one of Australia’s largest shortcomings in relation to its human rights record. In 2018, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners accounted for just over a quarter (28%) of the total Australian prisoner population, while the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population aged over 18 years of age amounted to only 2% of the entire population. Morbidity rates for respiratory diseases, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and particular cancers, including lung cancer, are also higher amongst Indigenous Australians in comparison to their non-Indigenous counterparts. These illnesses are also included in the list of pre-existing conditions that increase the likelihood of death by COVID-19 should a patient contract it.

Ms. Reynolds has stated, “there are many more sisters and brothers inside, who like this man [soon-to-be released Aboriginal dad] and my brother Nathan, are at severe risk from COVID-19 due to underlying health issues”.

Considering increased incarceration and morbidity rates of Indigenous peoples, there is huge potential for the COVID-19 virus to disproportionately affect incarcerated Indigenous Australians. The government must not let this happen. State governments around Australia must come to the table, just as the NSW government has, and either allow for the early release of low-risk and vulnerable inmates or arrange an alternative form of incarceration for inmates who are at a higher risk of fatality should they contract COVID-19. The ALSNSW/ACT is now amplifying pressure on other States and Territories to implement these measures. Queensland and Victoria, in particular, should consider such action, as the confirmed amount of COVID-19 cases for each state are the next two largest behind New South Wales.

Katherine Everest