An independent inquiry has been ordered into allegations that COVID-negative prisoners were forced to bunk with positive cellmates in a privately run Sydney prison.
The allegations were raised in two separate courts in recent weeks concerning inmates at Parklea Correctional Centre in the city’s northwest.
In one case, the NSW Supreme Court released a man on “extremely disturbing” weapons charges after lacking confidence he would be properly treated in custody.
In the other case, a District Court judge reduced the sentence of a man who held up multiple people with a gel blaster pistol after hearing “extremely concerning” evidence the offender was kept in a cell with a COVID-positive cellmate for about four weeks.
That man, who attested to having pneumonia in 2019, said a prison officer told him words to the effect of “You will be sent back (to the general population) when you catch COVID-19 and then get better.”
He said he was vaccinated on October 1 after asking about eight times for the jab.
“Clearly, the circumstances in which you have been detained for the last two months have been extremely confronting and will be taken into account, as in the nature of extra curial punishment,” Judge Andrew Colefax said when sentencing the offender.
The Crown in both cases did not dispute the allegations.
The prison, whose 1000-odd inmates are mainly on remand, was home to a COVID-19 cluster during Sydney’s latest outbreak with more than 170 cases recorded by mid-September.
Following questions about the two inmates’ allegations, Corrections Minister Anthony Roberts announced he’d instructed his department to “initiate an independent inquiry and report back to me as soon as practical”.
“The Acting Secretary of DCJ will advise on who will be conducting the independent investigation as soon as the decision has been made,” Mr Roberts told AAP in a statement.
Prison operator MTC-Broadspectrum declined to answer specific questions about the two cases before the court, citing the impending inquiry.
Questions included whether the operator disputed the gunman’s account and whether keeping close contacts in the same living quarters as COVID-19-positive inmates was supported by health advice.
A spokeswoman said the company welcomed the independent inquiry, with which it would cooperate fully.
“The safety of all our staff and inmates has always been our number one priority,” the spokeswoman said.
“There are now zero active COVID-19 cases at the prison.
“MTC-Broadspectrum has followed the expert advice from our partners Corrective Services NSW, our healthcare provider St Vincent’s and NSW Health to manage the outbreak, care for infected inmates and contain the spread.
“While Parklea Correctional Centre is privately operated, it is subject to the same rules and regulations that govern state prisons.”
As of two weeks ago, 1661 vaccine doses had been administered at the prison.
The inquiry comes after mothers and partners of Parklea inmates aired frustration in September about a lack of communication and challenges navigating the health system.
Some of the families have joined a lawsuit by Justice Action’s Brett Collins, who wants the NSW Supreme Court to order all NSW prisons to raise vaccination rates, abide by a one-per-four-square-metre rule at all times and permit all prisoners outside each day for at least one hour.
While Parklea has no COVID-19 cases now, it was only a matter of time until the virus returned to the prison, Mr Collins said.
Poorer conditions in custody – including harsh lockdowns and limited access to programs or exercise – was a human rights issue and will stymie rehabilitation.
“This will increase crime in the community,” Mr Collins said.Internet Explorer Channel Network