This afternoon, our office wrote an Open Letter to the Minister for Corrections, Ben Carroll, the Commissioner for Corrections Emma Cassar and the Assistant Commissioner for Corrections, Jenny Hoskins. This letter reflects the concerns that have been communicated to criminal defence lawyers in our Melbourne office regarding the preparedness of the Justice Department to contain and treat infections of COVID-19 within the prison system. It also addresses concerns about social distancing measures, which will disproportionately affect prisoners, by isolating them from their families and legal representatives.


We hope that this letter has turned the minds of the relevant leaders in Corrections and the Justice Department to the issues which will evolve as the Coronavirus spreads. We are committed to advocating for the rights of prisoners during these difficult times and stand ready to assist the Government in any way to put measures in place to protect prisoners, and prison staff, both physically and psychologically.


The following is the letter that was sent today:

To the Honourable Minister
for Corrections,

Re:    OPEN

We operate one of the
oldest criminal defence law firms in Victoria. We write to you in these
uncertain, troubling and anxious times to raise concerns about the prison
community in Victoria in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. We completely
appreciate that the Victorian Government is confronted with an urgent public
health emergency and, that the lack of communication from the Government in
relation to the prison situation may be due to the constantly evolving state of
affairs that the community is facing.

However, we raise the
following concerns and queries:

  1. It is unclear whether the Prison system has the capacity to contain and treat a COVID-19 outbreak within any of its prisons, most specifically the Melbourne Assessment Prison and the Metropolitan Remand Centre. What additional resources and arrangements are being made to manage and control any potential outbreak?
  2. Can the Department please confirm what communications have been conveyed to inmates in relation to any concerns they may have regarding infection or, what will occur if there is a report of infection?
  3. There are many prisoners whose criminal matters are ongoing and who need to conference with their legal representatives. Many of the criminal law firms in Melbourne, our office included, have suspended all attendances at the prisons to avoid increasing the risk of infection. What additional measures are being put in place to secure these lines of communication? Has the Department considered allowing more email correspondence, via prison officers, between prisoners and their lawyers? Have additional resources been allocated to increase teleconferences and jabber conferences?
  4. Has the Department considered increasing the length of Arunta calls from the current 11 minutes to 20 minutes for legal calls to avoid the need for regular jabbers and teleconference by pre-arrangement? If a prisoner can call his or her lawyer on their own account, but spend more time discussing their matters, this may alleviate the strain on jabber and teleconference facilities?
  5. There are many prisoners approaching the conclusion of their non-parole periods. Have arrangements been made to expedite parole hearings and conduct them all by tele-link or audio-visual link so that more people can be released on parole, therefore alleviating the strain on the prison system?
  6. With respect to individuals currently on parole, has consideration been given to replacing physical attendances upon parole officers with skype or telephone attendances, in order to maintain proper social distancing?
  7. With respect to the secure ward at St Vincent’s Hospital and the medical centres within the prisons, have arrangements been made for additional staff, supplies and equipment to deal with an outbreak of COVID-19? And, what testing arrangements are being implemented for new remand prisoners entering custody? We are concerned that, because it is unlikely that prisoners will be allowed hand sanitiser, there needs to be arrangements made for additional soap, masks and testing facilities.
  8. We are aware that prison visits from family may soon be affected. This will increase the distress, anxiety and frustration that many prisoners will inevitably experience and for an indefinite period. This may give rise to additional disturbances within the prisons, putting inmates, staff and visitors at risk. Has the Department considered allowing jabber contact between inmates and their families in order to reduce the number of physical visits? Such an option will allow the inmate to see their families, including their children, without the risk of infection. Such an allowance may be emotionally and psychologically comforting to inmates and their families, which may prevent disturbances within the prison.

We refer to section 22 of
the Charter of Human Rights and
Responsibilities Act
2006, which declares that all persons deprived of
their liberty must be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent
dignity of the human person. Prisoners are an often forgotten community, who suffer
the stigma of their status as sentenced prisoners or remanded prisoners. They
are also vulnerable both in terms of their incarceration but in also terms of
the over-representation of Indigenous peoples, individuals with psychological
and psychiatric issues, individuals with substance abuse issues and people who
come from a background of abuse, neglect and lack of socio-economic support.

We write to advocate for
this group of people and to assist the government, as much as we can, to think
creatively about how prisons may be able to function in these pressing and
anxious times.