Call to free hundreds of inmates

HUNDREDS of prisoners with less than six months left to serve would be released from Territory jails under "drastic and unprecedented measures" called for by criminal justice experts in response the coronavirus pandemic.

Hundreds of lawyers, academics and advocates - including Criminal Lawyers Association NT president Marty Aust and Aboriginal Peak Organisations NT co-ordinator Brionee Noonan - have put their names to an open letter to state and territory governments calling for "immediate action to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19" in Australian prisons and youth justice centres.

Among the letter's demands is the immediate release of vulnerable sentenced prisoners, including indigenous, elderly, female and youth detainees along with inmates on remand awaiting their day in court "where it is safe to do so".


University of Technology Sydney law professor and one of the letter's lead authors, Thalia Anthony, said the number of prisoners who should be set free would depend on the ability of those that remained to practice physical distancing, which in the NT would be "in the hundreds".

Corrections Commissioner Scott McNairn last week revealed he was considering releasing up to 60 prisoners amid the crisis but Prof Anthony said that did not go far enough to address the threat an outbreak in the Territory's overcrowded prisons would pose to the wider community.

"We feel (the Territory Government) hasn't been as proactive in it's measures as overseas where they have released many more people, mainly because they are worried about the flow on effects of an outbreak to the community (when the prisoners are eventually released)," she said.

"Some people have spoken about an analogy with cruise ships and prisons because of the capacity for spread in these overcrowded prisons - especially in the NT where they're constantly having to invest in more infrastructure to address that overcrowding - taking prisoners out will enable any outbreak to be controlled and managed better within the current facilities."

Prof Anthony said the early release would only apply to non-serious offenders and would come with the same restrictions normally imposed when criminals were released on parole.

"You can release them on parole and have conditions, that may be home detention which is complete home detention, not 'You can go out to the supermarket' like we're in home detention and also electronic monitoring bracelets are ways to manage any potential risk," she said.

"People, even if they are more serious offenders, will be leaving prisons within the next six to 12 months so I think it's about 'How do we manage that risk within the community?' because they will be let free as prisoners (almost) always are - how do we ensure they're let free without taking the virus with them?"

The vast majority of NT prisoners and youth detainees are indigenous and Prof Anthony said they were more at risk from the disease itself as well as introducing it into so far virus-free remote communities.

"One of the concerns is that if there's an outbreak and Aboriginal people return to their communities they could take that virus with them and that could be really devastating for remote communities," she said.

Prof Anthony said while there has still been no community transfer of coronavirus in the NT, that could quickly change if it took hold within the prison system.

"What might be happening in the NT is citizens in the community can manage social distancing and isolation but where that's not possible in prison we might be creating a problem in the NT that need not and does not exist anywhere else (in the Territory)," she said.

Attorney-General Natasha Fyles' office was contacted for comment.

Originally published as Call to free hundreds of NT inmates