5 October 2021

Corrections Victoria have announced that 36 people across five of Victoria’s prisons currently have COVID-19.

Prisons have a similar risk profile to aged care facilities in terms of the potential for uncontrollable outbreaks. That risk exists for both people in prison and the broader Victorian community given the regular movement of staff.

VALS has repeatedly advised the Andrews Government over the last a year to improve the effectiveness of policies for managing COVID outbreaks in Victoria’s prisons.

Our expert advice has been ignored by the Andrews Government.

Reducing the prison population is world’s best practice for managing COVID outbreaks in prisons. Despite this, the Andrews Government has not taken decarceration seriously. Despite the pandemic resulting in a small reduction in the prison population in 2020, the prison population is approximately 20% larger compared to when Daniel Andrews became Premier.

In the last few months, both IBAC and the Victorian Ombudsman have issued critical reports regarding the management of Victoria’s prisons. IBAC linked an alarming number of instances of corruption to the billions of dollars spent on increasing the prison population.

VALS calls on the Andrews Government to provide regular, detailed updates about the COVID outbreak in Victoria’s prison, including the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have tested positive. This is particularly important given that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are amongst the most vulnerable  in prison. We need transparency and accountability to ensure there are no preventable deaths in custody..

VALS also notes, with disappointment, that although last year there was timely information about prisons coming in and out of lockdown, that does not happen in the same way.

VALS has also regularly advised the Andrews Government to prioritise a vaccine rollout plan for prisons, including ensuring independent health professionals provide advice to people in prison about vaccines, and there is an appropriate follow up system to ensure people get their second dose if they leave prison after their first dose. We note that Victoria does well in vaccinating people in prison relative to other jurisdictions. However, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prison have much lower rates of vaccination than other people in prison.

In February, VALS published our Building Back Better plan which included a number of recommendations specifically related to managing COVID in prisons. These recommendations related to ensuring solitary confinement was not used to manage COVID outbreaks in prisons, culturally appropriate services were funded and empowered to help during an outbreak in prisons, and prioritising a vaccine rollout plan for prisons.

2021 marks 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody made 339 recommendations, many of which are still not implemented. Preventing more Aboriginal deaths in custody requires a human rights compliant, health driven COVID response in prisons.

Quotes Attributable to Andreea Lachsz, Head of Policy, Communications and Strategy:

“The Andrews Government talks a lot about following expert advice, but they have ignored VALS and experts from across the world about managing outbreaks in Victoria’s prisons.”

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more vulnerable to COVID and are less likely to get appropriate health care in prison.”

“We want more transparency by Corrections Victoria. When there were outbreaks in other high-risk settings, such as aged care facilities, the public were given much more detail about those outbreaks on a daily basis.”

To determine eligibility VALS will:

  • enquire as to the Aboriginality of the client;
  • enquire as to perceived or actual conflict of interest;
  • enquire as to compliance with the Means Test;
  • consider the merit of the client’s matter.

Aboriginality
The first time someone uses VALS they must provide proof of their Aboriginality using the Confirmation of Aboriginality Form. This form must be signed and sealed by the Officer Bearers of a recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation.

Conflict
VALS must not decline to provide assistance to an eligible person, group or body on the grounds that the other party to the matter is an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person. In circumstances where the relationship between the parties to a case would result in a conflict of interest, that conflict must be managed in accordance with the Victorian Legal Practice requirements and Policy Direction 9 – “Managing Conflicts of Interest” – of the Attorney-General’s Department Policy Directions for the Delivery of Legal Aid Services to Indigenous Australians (2008).

VALS will not act if a conflict of interest exists. A conflict of interest may be an ‘actual’ conflict of interest or a ‘perceived’ conflict of interest. A conflict of interest can involve:

  • Clients who have different interests, such as VALS may have advised or acted for person “A” (old client) who has an interest that conflicts with person “B” (intended new client).
  • Clients and VALS, such as a VALS staff member or Board Member has an interest that conflicts with an intended new client. Conflicts involving client-provider relationships are:
    •  An owner, director, manager, employee, contractor or agent of VALS and/or;
    • An employee of the Department; and/or
    • A close relative (spouse, de facto, parent, sibling or child) of any of the above.

VALS provides assistance on a first in best dressed basis (i.e. provide direct assistance to the party who approaches VALS first). VALS will refer the other party to another legal service provider or “brief out” the client to a private lawyer (subject to the client meeting the requirements for brief outs). Where appropriate, VALS may act for one client and provide assistance by brief out to the other.

Means Test
Where a person seeks casework assistance, VALS must ensure that applicants satisfy the Means Testing provisions of the Policy Directions.

VALS must ensure that all applicants for legal casework assistance satisfy one or more of the following requirements:

  • Under 18 years of age;
  • Main source of income comes from Community Development Employment Projects; (CDEP) participant wages or Centrelink (or equivalent) benefits; or
  • Gross household income is under $52,000 per annum.

Note: Household income includes the income of your partner, spouse, relative including an adult child who you live with.

The Means Test will be administered in two parts:

Part A: Requires the completion of a small number of questions relating to the applicant’s personal circumstances and income level.

Part B: Is required where applicants do not satisfy the criteria in Part A. It requires more detail about the applicant’s income, assets, employment status and number of dependents.

Merit Test
Discretion will be used to determine if a particular case has merit.