More than 1,000 prisoners and correctional officers have been infected with Covid in New South Wales over the past month, sparking major concerns from some justice advocates.
Cases have surged despite efforts to slow the spread through jails, including visitor limitations, isolation for new inmates, rapid testing and the siloing of positive prisoners.
Almost 150 prisoners tested positive over the past week alone â€“ up from 11 in the week to Christmas, and just one case the week prior.
In the five weeks to 17 January, 847 custodial staff also returned positive Covid tests.
Before 12 December, just 75 had tested positive.
Despite the sharp rise in infections in both workers and inmates, Kevin Corcoran, the Commissioner of Corrective Services NSW, has not used his power to release any at-risk inmates.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the NSW government passed a law to make it legal to conditionally release low-risk and vulnerable prisoners to protect them from the virus.
Brett Collins, an advocate for the group Justice Action, said the loved ones of prisoners were â€œdisgustedâ€ the powers had not been exercised.
â€œParliament has made a commitment to ensure the safety of these vulnerable people and for the commissioner not to use that ability is disgraceful,â€ he said.
â€œIt shows a lack of respect for the health and safety of those people with whom he has been entrusted. We have no doubt that more people will die and violence will ensue in prisons.â€
So far, one prisoner has died with Covid in NSW â€“ an unvaccinated man in his 60s who died in October.
Collins was also concerned about the potential for increased recidivism due to the longer-term impacts of changes to prison scheduling of programs and prolonged periods of isolation.
â€œThere will be damage done to the mental health of these people who are isolated and crime rates in the community will inevitably rise,â€ he said.
A spokesman for CSNSW said the emergency release power would only be used if it was â€œabsolutely necessaryâ€ to ensure the safety and effectiveness of jails.
â€œThere are no immediate plans to release anyone using this emergency measure, but if it does become necessary it will be done on a case-by-case basis and community safety will always be our number one priority,â€ the spokesman said.
â€œCSNSW holds the safety of all staff and inmates in the highest regard as we continue to follow the expert advice from our healthcare provider.â€
All prisoners have had access to vaccination since March last year, according to the Corrections health provider, Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network.
By 17 January, 71% of Indigenous inmates in youth justice centres had received two doses of the vaccine, with three-quarters of the young non-Indigenous population fully vaccinated.
Almost 90% of Indigenous and non-Indigenous adults in correctional centres have received at least one dose.
Just over 80% of the adult prison population had been fully vaccinated.
There were 184 active cases among prisoners on 17 January.
Tara Moriarty, the opposition corrections spokesperson, said the government should have learned more from the Delta spike last year and better prepared jails.
â€œInstead, we are again seeing a dangerously high number of cases, putting correctional officers and inmates at risk,â€ she said.
â€œCorrectional facilities are supposed to be the most restricted, secure facilities in NSW. It is unacceptable that the NSW government has again failed to manage this.â€
Steps have been taken to reduce the spread around jails, including moving all positive inmates from both public and privately operated facilities to the Silverwater jail.
A Justice Health spokesperson said this was so they can be â€œkept separate from the rest of the prison populationâ€ and moved to hospital if required.
Every new prisoner is placed in quarantine for two weeks before joining the wider prison population.
Other measures to slow the spread include the provision of PPE, rapid testing of new entrants and testing of symptomatic inmates.