Prison Outbreak Grows in Northern Territory

Concerns are growing about a Northern Territory prison, where close to half of inmates have tested positive. Alice Springs Correctional Centre (ASCC) has struggled to contain the rapid spread of COVID. Advocacy groups are particularly worried about the lack of prompt action given many inmates are Indigenous Australians.

ASCC has seen COVID numbers explode over the past few days. The prison reported 154 cases last Friday. Since then, numbers have jumped to 302 COVID-positive inmates as of Monday. That adds to 48% of ASCC prisoners currently in isolation for positive tests. The number of staff affected remains unknown.

85% of ASCC’s inmates have received two doses of the vaccine, and all corrections workers must be fully vaccinated under NT rules. Acting NT Correctional Services Commissioner David Thompson has reported that the majority of prisoners are experiencing mild or no symptoms.

The Territory’s Health Minister Natasha Fyles has commented on the government’s response, “We’ve sent in additional resources to help oversee and make sure all available public health measures are in place. We certainly have been managing this [outbreak] with the strictest protocols.”

But a government-funded activist group is calling on officials to take further emergency action at the prison, where a significant number of inmates are Indigenous. The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency is asking for early or temporary release to be granted to at-risk prisoners. “If ever there was an emergency, we’re in an emergency situation right now,” stressed the Agency’s principal legal officer David Woodroffe.

Indigenous Australians are more often and more severely affected by respiratory illnesses than non-Indigenous Australians.

Indigenous Australians are one of the most incarcerated peoples in the world. Despite comprising 3.3% of Australia’s population, they make up 30% of our inmates. Unfortunately, though Australia saw a recent decrease in our number of adult prisoners, the number of Indigenous adult prisoners has continued to grow.

The NT in particular has a substantial majority of Aboriginal prisoners, with 85% of their inmates being Indigenous. And as Indigenous Australians have higher risk of chronic disease, there are increased risks of COVID complications for them.

Some figures suggest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are three times more likely to face hospital admission for influenza and pneumonia. Vaccination rates among Aboriginal Australians have also lagged behind national averages throughout the pandemic.

Concerns about Indigenous inmates have been brought up since the beginning of the pandemic. In the NT, Chief Minister Michael Gunner has emphasised the protection of Indigenous Australians in his COVID policies.

Still, some experts like Dr Lesley Russel of USYD’s Menzies Centre warn NT Chief warn “you can’t just dump people into the community and expect them to manage,” regardless of COVID; deeper systems need to be established.

Cover photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

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