Across the country, over 43,000 people spend their days in crowded prisons, unable to practice even basic hygiene, such as effective hand-washing. Even more dire is the inevitable spread of the Novel Coronavirus within Australia’s prisons if effective preventative measures are not implemented. In a time when seniors and those with underlying conditions are told to isolate in their homes, where do we draw the line at who deserves such protection?
The time has come for Queensland, and all Australian jurisdictions, to consider a charitable bail fund, to release indigent women from prisons as a matter of urgency.
Social distance in a prison cell?
As the world comes to grips with the COVID-19 pandemic, the vast majority of Australians are practising, or doing our best at, social distancing. Many have the luxury of working from home, many have sadly lost their jobs, and many are still commuting to their posts as essential workers. But what of prisoners?
Those who have not been found guilty and are awaiting trial on remand make up 33% of the overall Australian prison population. More specifically, of the nearly 3,500 women imprisoned across Australia, roughly 85% are likely to have been victims of violence and many are homeless at the time of their arrest, both factors observed in correlation with criminalisation. In Queensland, most prison terms are short and are imposed for non-violent offences (over 60%).
Why are disadvantaged Australians, young and old, being exposed to the threat of corrections staff spreading coronavirus in their unsanitary, ill-equipped ‘homes’, while the rest of us close our doors and limit our social interactions? To simply deny face-to-face visitation to family and friends is not effective risk-mitigation, it is a denial of one of the few rights prisoners maintain when they are imprisoned, and it completely disregards any consideration for their mental and emotional health. More than half the Australian prison population has a physical, sensory, psychosocial (mental health), or cognitive disability. Nor is it effective to impose health screening for staff entering facilities, as it has been shown that COVID-19 may spread through asymptomatic carriers.
The call to governments
Professor Lorana Bartels, Professor Thalia Anthony and Professor Felicity Gerry QC are spearheading the fight for urgent action, penning open letters to the Australian governments on their response to COVID-19 and the criminal justice system. Their mission is to reduce the risk to those in Australia’s prisons and youth detention centres, where overcrowding is rampant, facilities are shared by many, and infectious diseases spread like wildfire. Many prisoners fall into the high-risk groups for COVID-19, with 1 in 3 suffering from an underlying or chronic condition, and 28% being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Advocate for the rights of women in prison, and the CEO of charity Sisters Inside, Debbie Kilroy, has been naturally vocal on this issue on Twitter, exclaiming “…We know health services [in prisons] are already stretched due to overcrowding. These cages may well be a death sentence for so many inside”.
Bartels, Anthony and Gerry are now calling for more extensive testing of detainees for the virus, medical treatment for anyone displaying symptoms, better access to information, increased health screening and immediate release of certain prisoners, including women and remandees. Hundreds of academics have joined this call.
What is a charitable bail fund?
The Bronx Freedom Fund, and its sister charity The Bail Project, were founded by Robin Steinberg, an American lawyer, advocate and public defender from New York. They operate across the US to bail out accused men and women who are unable to afford cash bail. When a cash bail amount is set for a defendant, the organisations can pay on their behalf, and when the defendant appears for their court date, the money is returned to the charity to be used again. The charities assist mostly low-risk, non-violent defendants and thus the risk of breaches of bail is also low. Further, in the 2019 financial year, only 2% of cash bail amounts were forfeited by defendants assisted by The Bail Project, indicating that the vast majority of accused persons complied with their bail and appeared in court on time.
You can watch Robin’s TED Talk about how the revolving cash bail fund model operates here.
Free Her — Time for Australia to set up a Fund
A similar model in every Australian state and territory is necessary to assist not only those with cash bail conditions set, but also with support services, accommodation, sureties and court appearance reminders for low-risk defendants. Bail support services operate around Australia, however, most only serve youth and/or Indigenous defendants. Although these are of course vital services, most do not operate to address cash bail conditions, assist those remanded due to homelessness or other low-risk factors, and nor do they tackle the specific causes of breaches of bail may lead to remand. The number of sentenced prisoners across the country is trending down, while the number of unsentenced prisoners increases. If a charitable bail fund model existed in this country, the likely rapid spread of COVID-19 in Australian prisons would affect, and kill, far fewer undeserving people.
We know Australians will support such a move. The crowdfunded campaign #freeher raised over $400,000 for West Australian women’s fines.
People still have rights in a crisis
Queensland’s new Human Rights Act, in combination with the Corrective Services Act, affords people on remand the right to be treated ‘in a way that is appropriate’ for an unconvicted person. We must release unsentenced prisoners, most of whom spend over 3 months awaiting trial behind bars, that pose no serious risk to the public. The courts are experiencing restrictions and delays.
In an era where communities come together (figuratively) to stop the spread of COVID-19, protect themselves, and protect their loved ones, those who are still presumed innocent deserve the chance to do the same.
By Stephanie Cook and Susan Harris Rimmer