Tasmania's Risdon prison battles COVID outbreak, fears workers and prisoners

Jail fear after prisoners, staff test positive

Grave fears are held for the repercussions of COVID in Tasmania's "overcrowded" prisons with several corrections officers already COVID positive.

Prisoners also have been impacted by the potential of an outbreak.

The first casualty of rising COVID cases was visits to prisoners. Now corrections officers are feeling the pinch and new detainees need to undergo 14 days of quarantine before they can enter.

It was understood the Tasmania Prison Service was proactively trying to stop COVID from entering the prison, and the service was in an escalated response mode as a result.

It is expected all those entering the prison would need to return a negative COVID test before entry, a system delayed only by the availability of rapid antigen tests.

Community and Public Sector Union Tasmania assistant secretary Tom Lynch said there were a number of positive corrections workers, while a "significant number" of remaining workers had been subject to isolation after being exposed to their COVID-positive colleagues.

He said he was also aware of several inmates who were COVID positive and in isolation.

Mr Lynch said the staffing levels for corrections officers had been an issue before COVID began booming around the state from December 15, but the result of now more than 7000 cases active in Tasmania left the service exposed.

People understand how difficult COVID has made it in the health setting, but it is equally difficult in the corrections system.

CPSU state assistant secretary Tom Lynch

Mr Lynch said the isolation of workers and the extra staff needed to allow for the 14-day quarantine of incoming detainees left the employee side of the prison service vulnerable to the staffing issues at play in health care settings.

A TPS spokesperson confirmed two prisoners, as well as 16 staff members, had tested positive to COVID "in recent days", despite "strict protocols in place to reduce the risk of COVID entering the prison".

"Staff are isolating at home in line with public health requirements and affected prisoners are isolating within TPS facilities in line with the TPS's COVID management plans," they said.

They did not say how many close contact staff members, if any, were also isolating.

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Mr Lynch said he believed the TPS was doing the best it could to prevent an outbreak in the prison, but long held concerns about an overcrowded and understaffed prison could prove to be the downfall of the service's COVID response.

The TPS spokesperson said the service was instituting several measures to stop the spread of COVID following the positive cases.

"This includes the temporary cessation of in-person visits from [Monday] and establishing dedicated isolation facilities within prisons to allow offenders who are either infected or close contacts to isolate as required," they said.

"The TPS recognises that ceasing visits is difficult for prisoners, detainees and their families, however, it is a necessary step to keep everyone in the prison safe and will only be in place as long as is necessary."

Prisoners Legal Service chairman Greg Barns SC said, as a result of COVID precautions, lockdowns had become a new normal and prisoners were spending a large majority of their day on their own.

Greg Barns SC.

Greg Barns SC.

That meant prisoners were finding it difficult to contact family and friends outside of prison, and defence counsel was struggling to provide clients with legal advice which was leading to drawn-out court cases.

An increase in lockdown activity had also been felt by corrections workers, according to Mr Lynch.

He said in the past two weeks workers had noted an increase in assault perpetrated by prisoners against prison officers, as well as against other inmates, as frustrations boiled over.

He said running the prison during regular lockdowns had been difficult for corrections workers and having to do so with an impacted workforce, while COVID was at play in the prison, could be a "disaster".

Mr Barns said several detainees in the prison were part of the vulnerable population and advocated for the compassionate release of low-risk older prisoners - a process that had been made possible in NSW and overseas.

Mr Barns's advocacy came days after it was announced jury trials would be suspended until at least March 15, something he said would result in "unfair" delays to justice for several prisoners.

Greens leader Cassy O'Connor said there was a case for the compassionate release of some prisoners

"There is a strong epidemiological argument for vulnerable and low-risk prisoners to be released," she said.

This story Jail fear after prisoners, staff test positive first appeared on The Examiner.