People with disabilities in prison at higher risk of COVID-19

What is a disability?

Firstly, it is important to understand what a ‘disability’ is. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with a Disability recognises that a disability may result from the interaction between long-term impairments which, in interacting with barriers in everyday lives, prevent that person from participating in the community on the same basis as everyone.

A disability can be visible or hidden, temporary or permanent and may have a minimal or substantial impact on a person’s abilities.

Are people with disabilities involved in the criminal justice system?

Yes, people with disabilities can be, and are, involved in the criminal justice system. The Law Council of Australia’s Justice Project found that people with a disability have high levels of interaction with the criminal justice system as victims, offenders and prisoners.

Numerous studies have found that people with disabilities are over-represented in the Australian prison population. Human Rights Watch have reported that, although people with disabilities comprised around 18 per cent of the Australian population, they constitute almost 50% of Australia’s prison population. In their 2017 report, the NSW Mental Health Commission stated that 50 per cent of adult prisoners had been diagnosed with or treated for a mental health condition. Additionally, the commission found that 87 per cent of young people in custody have a past or present psychological impairment.

The over-representation of people with disabilities in Queensland corrective facilities is equally harrowing. The prevalence of intellectual disability in the general Australian population is approximately 1 – 2%. According to a 2002 survey conducted by Queensland Corrective Services, people with an intellectual disability made up approximately 10% of the prison population. This means that people with an intellectual disability are imprisoned at five times the rate of people without an intellectual disability.

How are prisons affected by COVID-19?

Social distancing is the primary strategy that the Australian Government has advocated to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

COVID-19 spreads mainly among people who are in close contact (within about 6 feet) for a prolonged period. Spread happens when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, and droplets from their mouth or nose are launched into the air and land in the mouths or noses of people nearby. The droplets can also be inhaled into the lungs.

However, social distancing is not possible in Australian prisons. The design of Australian prisons means that people are almost always in close proximity with one another. This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that many Australian prisons are overcrowded, often unhygienic, and prisoners have limited access to health care.

The risk of COVID-19 spreading extends to the broader community, as people churn through the prison system on a daily basis. Many people come and go from prisons including prison staff, contractors, health professionals and educators. As a result, there is ample opportunity for COVID-19 to enter a prison, and for it to go back out into the community. 

The unhygienic and close-proximity qualities of prison make the transmission of COVID-19 extremely easy. Once one prisoner or official is infected, COVID-19 will spread through the centre like wildfire, hopping form one person to another.

What should the government do about this?

State governments must take urgent steps to reduce the number of people in the prisons and stem the tide of those coming into the legal system as part of their response to this unprecedented public health emergency. Governments must employ coordinated and structured release as soon as possible – before infections in prison occur – to safeguard everyone.