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Shepparton lawyers concerned for clients in custody due to COVID-19

By Liz Mellino

Shepparton lawyers have raised concerns over the safety of their clients in custody after it was confirmed that six Victorian prisons were placed into lockdown this week due to a positive COVID-19 case.

Corrections Victoria confirmed on Tuesday that a prison officer working at the medium security Ravenhall Correctional Centre in Melbourne had tested positive for the virus.

Ravenhall and a further five prisons were quickly placed into lockdown, including Hopkins Correctional Centre, Langi Kal Kal, Barwon Prison, Fulham and Loddon.

The news came as a "significant concern" to a number of Shepparton lawyers, with Camerons Lawyers associate Shana McDonald saying the virus had the ability to "spread like wildfire" once inside the prison.

“Those individuals in our prison system are often the most disadvantaged members of our community and now they are placed in an extreme risk of contracting the virus simply because they are in custody,” she said.

“COVID-19 has a real risk of spreading through our prison systems; we are already seeing this occur in other countries. We can expect that soon the infection rate will be far worse than that reflected in the general community.”

Corrections Victoria confirmed in a statement on Tuesday that the officer’s contact with other staff and prisoners was being determined, with contract tracing under way and impacted staff and prisoners being notified.

While community members are being told to socially distance when out in public to reduce their risk of contracting the virus, Ms McDonald said this was not possible for people currently in custody.

“Social distancing within an overcrowded prison population is near impossible,” she said.

“The current conditions inside our prison system are conducive to mental health issues; this is not good for anyone.”

The prison officer was not the first confirmed COVID-19 case in a correctional facility in Victoria, with a prisoner in protective quarantine at the Metropolitan Remand Centre returning a positive test result on July 17.

“The prisoner was swabbed as part of measures for new receptions, who are tested upon arrival and required to undergo a 14-day protective quarantine process,” Corrections Victoria said.

“He will continue to be monitored and assessed while in isolation, and is being provided with a range of supports.”

While the virus presents a risk to many Shepparton locals currently in custody across the state, it has also been an important consideration for Shepparton magistrates in recent bail applications.

COVID-19 has been cited as an "exceptional circumstance" by many lawyers at the Shepparton Law Courts since its outbreak, with many arguing for their clients to be released from custody due to the risk it poses to them.

Lawyers have also argued that the delay to the legal system caused by the virus is an important consideration for magistrates when deciding whether to grant bail, with the delay posing the risk that people found guilty will possibly spend more time in custody than they would be sentenced to serve.

“We now have a significant delay coupled with an extreme health risk — therefore it is absolutely appropriate that COVID-19 is a consideration for the magistrate when making their decision,” Ms McDonald said.

“We must accept that remanding someone under the current conditions has to be the last resort.”

Slater & King lawyer and director Emma King said the virus had also put a stop to visitors attending prisons across the state and had forced the introduction of 14-day lockdowns for new inmates.

She argued many of her clients were now even further removed and disconnected from their families and the community, which could impact their chances of positive rehabilitation.

“Placing prisoners in extensive lockdowns up to 24 hours a day as a way to manage infection spread raises significant human rights issues and can have a seriously detrimental impact on a prisoner’s mental and physical health,” she said.

“The only solution we see is for the government to immediately take steps to reduce the prison population. This has occurred in many other countries across the world, most notably in the United States.”