The crucial and high-risk job of cleaning prisons to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak should be undertaken by professional cleaning staff, who have access to PPE

MEDIA RELEASE 10 August 2020

VALS is highly concerned by reports that people detained in prison are undertaking the high-risk work of cleaning common areas of prisons; that they have been ‘skilled up as part of the fight to prevent a widespread outbreak’ in detention. VALS supports people in prisons being provided training and acquiring skills that can aid in their rehabilitation and assist them to secure employment upon release, but is of the firm view that cleaning prisons should be undertaken by professional cleaning staff, with appropriate measures being put in place to prevent COVID-19 transmission between cleaning staff, people who are detained and the wider community. VALS’ concerns are compounded by reports that detained people are being paid small amounts of money to undertake this hazardous work.

It has been repeatedly emphasised that thorough cleaning is a measure undertaken as part of ‘Corrections Victoria’s ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) management plan, and consistent with existing advice from the Department of Health and Human Services.’ Although VALS understands that deep cleaning of areas such as quarantine is being carried out by professionals, it does not consider it appropriate for detained people to undertake the crucial, but high risk, work of cleaning any part of the prison in the midst of a pandemic, in the middle of a declared State of Disaster.

 

The Australian Government Department of Health, with the endorsement of the Infection Control Expert Group,  recommends that in health and residential care facilities, cleaning staff ‘should wear impermeable disposable gloves and a surgical mask plus eye protection or a face shield while cleaning.’ The Communicable Diseases Network Australia Guidelines recommend that detention cleaning staff ‘wear appropriate PPE, including impermeable disposable gloves and a surgical mask, gown or apron, eye protection or a face shield while cleaning.’ WHO Europe recommends that in places of detention, ‘prison staff (including cleaning personnel) receive training on environmental prevention measures, including cleaning and disinfection.’ It remains unclear whether these rigorous standards are being met during cleaning, particularly in the context of detained people having poor access to PPE during their transportation.

 

Quotes attributable to Nerita Waight, CEO of Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service:

Experts internationally and domestically have repeatedly emphasised the high risk of COVID-19 spreading like wildfire in detention. Although the risk can only be adequately mitigated by releasing people from detention and curbing admissions, to allow for physical distancing in detention, maintaining exceptional cleaning and hygiene practices is an essential component of any prevention plan.

 

I urge the Government to engage professional cleaning staff to clean all parts of Victoria’s prisons, not only those deemed to be the highest risk areas. The Government, in its attempts to protect the community, has announced that staff at meatworks are required to wear full PPE, and protections for people cleaning prisons should be comparable.

 

Inadequately remunerating detained people, many of whom have underlying health conditions that put them at high risk of becoming seriously ill or dying should they contract COVID-19, to clean prisons is a highly inappropriate practice. Unfortunately it appears that the Government has prioritised saving costs over saving lives – at least the lives of the people who are incarcerated. 

 

Yesterday, we celebrated the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, and I ask the Government to demonstrate its commitment to preventing more Aboriginal deaths in custody by ensuring robust hygiene and cleaning practices, and not unnecessarily putting the people in its care in harm’s way.

                                                                                                                   Contact: Andreea Lachsz

alachsz@vals.org.au