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The entry sign to Parklea Correctional Centre in Sydney, Australia, July 30, 2020. 2020 Matt Blyth/Getty Images

(Sydney) – The Australian state of New South Wales (NSW) should urgently ensure that prisoners have access to Covid-19 vaccines, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Covid-19 Delta strain has spread inside NSW prisons. State authorities told Human Rights Watch that as of August 27, 2021, only 21 percent of prisoners in the state’s government-run adult facilities were fully vaccinated, with 42 percent having received at least one dose. The general population’s vaccination rates for NSW was 35 percent fully vaccinated, while 65 percent had received at least one dose.

“The New South Wales government has failed to prevent vaccination rates for prisoners from lagging well behind the general population even though prisoners are at a far greater risk of contracting Covid-19,” said Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Australian authorities should have learned the lessons from other countries where Covid-19 has spread quickly inside prisons with devastating results.”

Prisoners globally are typically at heightened risk of Covid-19 due to close proximity, poor ventilation, inability to practice “social distancing,” difficulties in providing adequate sanitation and hygiene, a higher rate of underlying medical conditions than the general population, and inadequate health care. A study in the United States showed that prisoners are three times as likely to die from Covid-19 as members of the general population.

Human Rights Watch spoke with 13 families of current NSW prisoners who said that their relatives had not yet been vaccinated or had only received a first dose in the past week, even though some of them had repeatedly asked to be vaccinated.

The wife of one of the 77 inmates at Parklea Correctional Centre in Sydney who tested positive for Covid-19 in late August told Human Rights Watch that he is asthmatic and had not been offered the chance to be vaccinated before contracting the virus inside jail.

“It’s been hell,” she said. “Saturday when he called, he was having trouble breathing talking to me on the phone. He's not vaccinated and [they] never offered it to him at all.”

The wife of a 60-year-old prisoner at the South Coast Correctional Centre in NSW said he has still not been offered the chance to be vaccinated with AstraZeneca, which is widely available, despite numerous requests over the last two months.

“He is still asking for Astra vax [AstraZeneca vaccine] but has no idea when he can receive it,” she said. “He’s a sitting duck in there. I don’t want his six-month sentence to turn into a life sentence. There’s plenty of AstraZeneca vaccine available in the community, I just don’t understand why they don’t give it to him.”

Low vaccination rates for prisoners in NSW compared with the general population is of particular concern considering that one in four prisoners in NSW is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Indigenous Australians have an increased risk of complications from Covid-19 due high rates of underlying health conditions and chronic illness, and systemic inequality, racism, and discrimination in getting health care in Australia.

The mother of a 24-year-old man in the Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre at Silverwater in Sydney said he told her that he had made four requests to be vaccinated, but he had not yet been provided with a vaccine.

“He’s been there six weeks on remand, and he is Indigenous so I’m really worried,” she said.

The federal government designated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults a priority group for vaccinations in January. However, vaccination rates for Indigenous communities are lagging behind the rate of the total population in every state and territory in Australia except Victoria. 

Family members said that incarcerated loved ones had told them about fellow prisoners testing positive for Covid-19 in Parklea prison at least four days before the cases were reported publicly.

In November, 2020, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) issued preliminary advice on which population groups should be prioritized for Covid-19 vaccines. The group included prisoners as a potential priority group for vaccination “due to increased risk of disease acquisition and transmission within those settings.”

However, when Australia’s heath minister announced the rollout of Phase 1B of the government’s vaccination plan, prisoners were not included as a priority group. The federal Health Department has not responded to questions from Human Rights Watch about why prisoners were not included.

Some Australian states and territories have ensured that prisoners have adequate access to vaccines. The Australian Capital Territory Health Department told Human Rights Watch that their latest data showed that 55 percent of prisoners has received both doses, 61 percent had at least one dose, and all had been provided the opportunity to receive a vaccine. The Western Australian Corrective Service Minister reported that 50 percent of prisoners in his state had received both doses, and 66 percent had received at least one.

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which monitors government compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Australia is a party, stated in its General Comment on the right to the highest attainable standard of health, that “States are under the obligation to respect the right to health by, inter alia, refraining from denying or limiting equal access for all persons, including prisoners or detainees, minorities, asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants, to preventive, curative and palliative health services.”

“At an absolute minimum, prisoners should have the same access to vaccines as the rest of the population,” McNeill said. “All of Australia’s states and territories should address the need for greater transparency by releasing weekly updates on prisoner vaccination rates.”

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