This story has been edited since it was first published this morning. It will be updated further if answers to questions are received.
Two deaths in three days need urgent investigation
In the last week of January, two prisoners died within three days of each other in Junee prison in Southern NSW.
A 47-year-old man who is believed to have tested positive for COVID-19 died on January 26 and a 48-year-old woman died on January 29. Their names have not been released. So far we do not know more about the circumstances in which these two people unexpectedly died.
It is possible that neither of these two people died of COVID but that is not the only question that matters. The question is whether heavy ‘lockdowns’ and other response to COVID are threatening the lives and health of inmates and causing extreme distress to their families, some of whom are already living with a lot of pressure.
Is there a point at which restrictions imposed in the name of keep a group safe expose them and others to unnecessary additional risks?
On Sunday, Greens NSW MP David Shoebridge and prison advocates called for an urgent independent inquiry into the private for-profit prison which is run by the GEO group, a Florida based company that owns, leases and manages prisons and immigration detention centres in the United States, Australia, South Africa, and the UK. GEO’s annual revenue of about $3.5 billion, mostly depends on government contracts. Junee can hold up to 1200 people. The corporation’s motto is ‘Continuum of Care’.
“Two deaths in three days is a deep troubling pattern, and an urgent investigation with public reporting is immediately needed,“ said Greens NSW MP David Shoebridge. He called on the Inspector of Custodial Services to conduct an immediate investigation and for the NSW government to take the prison back into public hands.
Shoebridge described his office as being “inundated with requests from families for information about what’s happening with their loved ones because they’re hearing nothing from the prison operator….They have been denied essential information about what’s happening which is creating a climate of fear and distress.”
In researching this article, I’ve also spoken to distressed mothers and partners who are anxious about inmates, some of whom suffer from serious mental illness and physical illnesses. Since the COVID Omicron outbreak began, they have been unable to get reassurance for weeks at a time about the well being of their relatives.
(Since I first published this story. I have been contacted by a woman who was told on February 9th that welfare checks that normally allow relatives to check that an inmate is basically OK are not being done at Junee prison anymore. Further attempts to contact the prison were not successful.)
Locked down for 23 hours and 45 minutes a day…
Since mid January, many prisoners have been confined to their cells for 23 hours and 45 minutes each day. There are both one and two person cells. Prisoners are entitled to get an hour’s exercise a day but this has been suspended. They are now allowed out of their cells for less than 15 minutes a day during which time they can attempt to make one phone call and in some cases, shower. Some prisoners have not been getting showers on all days. ( I confirmed this from more than one independent source but since I published the article, GEO of contacted me to deny that any prisoner is not getting a daily shower.)
Prisoners are deprived of sunlight. Face to face visits have not occurred for months but now audiovisual visits with families are also suspended.
How many cases of COVID in Junee prison?
In the last week, Justice Health which is responsible for health in prisons has notified 492 fresh cases in NSW prisons and there are more than active 600 cases. In the previous week, there were 380 cases. This does not include staff cases. According to NSW Corrective Services protocols, all prisoners who are sick with COVID are to be transferred to Silverwater prison in Sydney within 48 hours of testing positive. I have asked GEO how many COVID cases are in Junee waiting for transfer but have not yet received an answer.
Once a week, Justice Health publishes an update on vaccination rates. This week, 82.3% of prisoners in publicly run NSW have had two doses of vaccine. No figures for boosters are available. However these figures do not include the thousands of prisoners who are in privately managed facilities as these are regarded as the responsibility of the private companies who manage them.
Legal communications and court appearances are disrupted
Every person who is charged is entitled to communicate with their lawyers. This is a crucial part of the administration of justice. Some lawyers have not been able to speak to their clients for weeks. While some public prisons have arranged for tablets to be taken to cells for legal consultations and even for court appearances, Junee has not. A single phone call of several minutes can be made each day but this is far less than is required to take instructions and prepare a case.
Junee prison management have failed to organise for all inmates to be taken to a room for AVL court appearances. This means that courts have been disrupted, especially at Wagga Wagga and Albury.GEO has not explained why this happened. Some AVL court hearings have resumed.
Prison advocate Renee McNab is also calling for a public inquiry. McNab said cancellations of audio visual appearances for long awaited for dates for applications for bail or sentencing was upsetting for prisoners and families.“Its quite unfair… it’s just delaying their legal issue and I am hearing horrible stories about families ringing up for Welfare checks and being told not to worry but not being told anything. This is causing a lot of stress.” While understanding that COVID is a serious illness and strict safety precautions must be taken, McNab said that the extreme restrictions and poor health services were also putting lives and health of prisoners at risk.
The failure of the prison to be able to safely convey prisoners to a room for AVL court hearings causes costly delays in the legal system. It can add to remand periods resulting in some people being exposed to added risks of being in prison when they would otherwise be in the community. When defence submissions are not adequately prepared , inmates can spend longer in custody than they should.
Acting chief executive of the Aboriginal Legal Service, Nadine Miles, told the Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser last week that the service was “deeply concerned” about the spread of COVID in prisons across the state. She said the pandemic was deteriorating standards for prisoners, who were being cut off from family visits and “denied access to rehabilitation programs”. “There are currently long delays for resolution of criminal charges - justice delayed is justice denied,” Ms Miles said.
In response to questions about the situation in Junee, GEO issued this statement:
Junee Correctional Centre is operating to strict COVID-19 protocols as mandated by Corrective Services NSW and NSW Health. Subsequent restricted movement within the centre may impact some activities, including access to video visits and court appearances by video link. The safety of our staff, inmates and broader community is our number one priority as we continue to manage the risks posed by COVID-19.
The GEO Group Australia has been managing Junee Correctional Centre on behalf of the State for almost 30 years. We take pride in our ability to deliver safe and secure correctional environments, with a key focus on the rehabilitation and reintegration of the people in our care.
GEO is fully supporting investigations into two recent deaths in custody, of which the causes will be determined in coronial inquests.
Since Corrective Services referred my questions about matters concerning the management of Junee to GEO, I have asked GEO to supply the document that states that prisoners should be locked in their cells for 23 hours , 45 minutes a day for weeks in order to keep prisoners safe from COVID. I am still waiting for this.
There have been medical delays across society during the COVID period. However in researching this story, I was told by lawyers and family members of incidences in which treatment for a serious injury has been indefinitely delayed leaving serious damage; and a prisoner with a very serious mental health condition has told his partner he is not receiving all his medication. In December, The Guardian reported that a First Nations prisoner with an infected hip replacement had not been receiving adequate medical treatment in Junee prison. Sources asked not to be named due to their fear of punitive action. GEO has denied that anyone is not getting adequate medical care.
Previous Deaths in Custody revealed problems at Junee prison
These recent events build on a background of two recent Coronial Inquests that established a failure to provide adequate care to prisoners. Two Deputy Coroners reported their findings last year into the deaths of two First Nations men. While there have been building improvements at Junee Prison since these deaths and GEO claims that care has improved, there has been no opportunity to investigate or seriously investigate these claims.
When Deputy Coroner Harriet Grahame reported her findings on the death of 23 year old Wiradjuri, Ngiyampaa and Murrawarri man Jonathan Hogan in Junee Prison in 2018, she apologised to his father Matthew Hogan for the inadequate care provided to his son who suicided. Jonathan Hogan had been diagnosed as living with schizophrenia and did not receive his prescribed medication at the prison. She highlighted “systemic challenges” within the prison system, and expressed “a number of concerns about the overall care and treatment provided to Jonathan”. She criticised the records that had been kept of Jonathan’s treatment and the poor communication between GEO and his family.
At the time the Coronial findings were handed down in 2020, GEO issued a statement that they had already acted on some of the Coroner’s recommendations.
Almost a year ago, Wanaruah man Danny Whitton’s family gathered at the Coroner’s Court for the Inquest into the death of their 25 year old son, brother and father of two young children. The death had occurred in 2015 but they were forced to wait six long years to find out the circumstances in which he had died.
I attended most of the Inquest hearings and was struck by how a grieving family represented by the Aboriginal Legal Service and a Legal Aid solicitor who seemed swallowed in a courtroom packed with more than twenty well-paid barristers and solicitors whose job it was to defend the interests of employees, professionals and corrective institutions whose actions were relevant to an inquiry into Whitton’s death. In the end while many criticisms were made but no one was held accountable.
When she delivered her findings in in November, Deputy Coroner Elaine Truscott found that the length of time it had taken to investigate the death was “regrettable”. She found that Whitton had died after ingesting an overdose of paracetamol in Junee Prison, where he had been engaged in “illicit and unsafe drug use”. This occurred because he was unable to get access to a methadone program. He had been on a program before he went to prison. Evidence was given last year that it can still take between 18 and 30 months for inmates to access methadone programs. The Coroner found that he might well have been released before he got on the program which raised questions about the usefulness of a waitlist with 60 prisoners on it. She found that the possibility that Whitton was not frank with health staff about his drug use in the prison because he feared the information would be shared with custodial staff was “extremely concerning”.
The Coroner found that Whitten’s deteriorating condition had not been “appropriately monitored”. Blood tests were “not actioned” and overall he was provided with “sub-optimal care”. There was a “significant misunderstanding” about the transfer of an inmate to hospital. Record keeping was poor.
After pissing blood Whitton went to the health clinic at Junee. In the following days, Whitton was continually vomiting and lying under the shower for long periods of time. He was not properly observed by staff and when he was observed, it was mostly by a custodial officer not a nurse.
Initially no doctor was available in Junee over the weekend to attend the prison but when the only doctor, Dr Corbett, did attend the Coroner found that there were multiple gaps in his record keeping. By the time Whitton’s transfer to hospital was organised, it was too late to save his life.
Whitton was airlifted to Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney where he died. CCTV footage of the events was deleted and the Coroner recommended that in the future it should be handed to investigators. An inmate who was in a position to closely observe Whitton’s illness was not even interviewed until years after the death when memories had faded.
In a statement read to the media outside the court, Whitton’s family said:
It has been helpful to understand more about what happened to Danny, but it’s caused anger and sadness too. We have learned that so much more care could have been offered to our Danny boy while he was in prison. He had the right to healthcare, just like every single person in custody. If that care had been given to Danny, we believe our boy would still be here with us today. On behalf of my family, I would like to thank all the inmates who gave statements in court this week. You have been able to help us understand and given us answers we needed to know.”
You can read the full statement here: https://www.alsnswact.org.au/danny_whitton_family_statement
Silence around prisons enables abuse
“The failure of the Minister ( for Corrective Service David Elliott) or the private operator to even announce these two deaths is just another part of the policy of silence around the unfolding crisis in prisons and it must end,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“Another closed door investigation by the private operator and Corrective Services just won’t get the answers that are so clearly needed,” said Shoebridge. Serious questions remain about the safety of this private prison and the impact of private operators seeking to maximise profits regardless of human cost.”
It seems unlikely at this stage that either the Minister for Health Brad Hazzard, who is responsible for Justice Health, or the Minister for Corrections Geoff Lee will respond to calls for a higher degree of transparency and accountability by ordering an immediate investigation and public inquiry into the circumstances that led two people in their forties to unexpectedly die in Junee Prison. If they were seriously ill, should they have been in hospital rather than prison? How are onerous conditions impacts on underlying health conditions? At this stage there will only be a police investigation and Coronial Inquest. As the record shows, this can take years.
I have submitted a number of questions about the situation in Junee to GEO and Justice Health. When I receive answers I will add to this story.
Extra research: Lila Pierce
I am currently investigating the impact of COVID on the criminal justice system for a national newspaper. If you can help or know more, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact me on messenger, Signal or WhatsApp.