Some prisoners spending 22 hours a day in solitary confinement due to Queensland Covid lockdown | Australia news


Prisoners in Queensland have been denied access to lawyers, medical care and contact with family members under the state’s emergency lockdown of its correctional centres, say two prominent non-profit legal services.

The Caxton Legal Centre and Prisoners’ Legal Service have released a joint statement saying the situation inside Queensland prisons has led to “an array of human rights breaches”, including the use of solitary confinement to isolate vulnerable people.

The groups say that some prisoners have been in solitary confinement for “at least” 22 hours a day for months on end.

All prisoners in Queensland were placed into lockdown three weeks ago, after a prison officer tested positive for coronavirus.

The state’s correctional services department says the lockdown was based on the advice of the chief health officer, Jeannette Young. On Sunday, the Arthur Gorrie correctional centre, where prisoners rioted after staff had been unable to deliver meals and medication, eased its restrictions.

Cybele Koning, chief executive of Caxton Legal Centre, said the Brisbane correctional centre recently conveyed it was “not operationally viable” to facilitate prisoner teleconferences with lawyers due to staffing limitations.

Koning said lawyers had experienced difficulties communicating with clients since March.

“Access to lawyers for people in prison is one of the minimum guarantees provided to Queenslanders under the Human Rights Act,” Koning said. “This guarantee is often considered to be the most important and fundamental right to safeguard the fairness of criminal proceedings.

“When we have technology at our disposal, it is inconceivable that this persistent breach of rights has not been addressed at a systemic level. This needs to be fixed urgently.”

The joint statement said some inmates who meet the criteria of a “vulnerable prisoner” had been held in solitary confinement for at least 22 hours each day, with restricted calls to family, for periods in excess of four months.

The groups also say that prisoners’ contact with family members has been drastically reduced, and that prisoners had not been given timely access to medical or mental health care.

“It is unacceptable to use solitary confinement as a response to the pandemic instead of humane medical isolation. We know that solitary confinement is a dangerous practice as there’s a high likelihood that people who experience it will suffer psychological damage,” Helen Blaber, the director of Prisoners’ Legal Service, said.

“I am concerned that prisoners are not being provided with prescribed medication in the doses or at the times required. For example, we have been told that at one correctional centre medication is only being delivered once per day, or not at all, instead of in the required doses which might be twice per day.

“Prisoners have a human right to health services, including the provision of medication, which is being restricted without justification.”

Koning said that Covid-19 would remain a concern “for the foreseeable future” and correctional centres needed to operate in a manner that protects people in prison from the virus, but at the same time upholds basic human rights.

“The Human Rights Act is being sorely tested in all these situations. These issues need to be rectified immediately.”

Last week, Guardian Australia reported that the Queensland human rights commissioner, Scott McDougall, had called for an independent inspector to oversee prisons and youth detention centres.

In a statement published on Sunday announcing the easing of restrictions at Arthur Gorrie, the Queensland corrections commissioner, Peter Martin, said the lockdown had not been implemented lightly.

“We appreciate that a two-week lockdown is difficult and challenging for officers and prisoners alike, however the fact that we have not seen any positive cases amongst prisoners or further cases in staff shows that the measures taken were effective,” Martin said.

“We are incredibly thankful that our measures, guided by the best advice of Queensland Health, have paid off.”

Last week, Queensland Corrective Services published a lengthy post about its attempts to balance coronavirus protections against human rights concerns.

“The reality of operating in a prison environment … is that a number of factors, including the built environment and the extent of the prison population impact on our operations, [require] us to balance the good of the many with the rights of an individual,” the post said.

The department told Guardian Australia the courts were “fully aware” of temporary interruptions to normal prison practices, including video conferencing.

“The courts understood that based on the expert health advice of the chief health officer, quarantine and other measures had to be put in place for the safety of prisoners and corrections officers.

“We have regularly communicated with the legal community and courts during the pandemic, and there are clear channels for escalation of concerns relating to this.”

Corrections said it had facilitated more than 11,000 video consultations between prisoners and lawyers since the onset of the pandemic. It said prisoners at all facilities have access to medical and mental health services, and that additional channels had also been put in place to allow them to remain in contact with families.

“We are keenly conscious of our human rights obligations, however they must be balanced against our critical responsibility to ensure the safety of our officers and the prisoners in our custody. International experience shows the impacts of the virus when it infiltrates prisons, and we are doing everything in our power, under advice from the chief health officer and Queensland Health, to prevent an outbreak.”



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