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An Urgent Plea To Release Women And Children From Prisons

“Leaving them in there with COVID-19 would be a death sentence,” says Debbie Kilroy

When Debbie Kilroy OAM, 59, landed back in Brisbane after a work trip to New York, she anxiously filled out the COVID-19 questionnaire.

Had she been overseas in the last 14 days? Yes.

Had she been in close proximity to anybody who’s tested positive to coronavirus in the last 14 days? Yes – she’d sat two seats away from Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton on the way to America.

Did she have any symptoms? Yes. She was feeling nauseous and had a headache, a sore throat and congestion.

When Kilroy’s test came back positive for the virus a day later, her first thought wasn’t for herself – it was for our most vulnerable communities, her Indigenous family and friends, and all the women and children currently in prison.

Having spent time in prison in her youth, Kilroy founded Sisters Inside in 1992 to advocate for the human rights of women in the criminal justice system. When she speaks about the women in prison amid the COVID-19 pandemic, her voice cracks with fear and desperation.

Here, she shares an emotional plea for humanity…

“When I found out I had COVID-19, I was most worried about giving it to other people. My husband and my children are Indigenous and are more vulnerable to it, so I’ve been in self-isolation for three weeks now.

Women in prison don’t have the ability to self-isolate because of over-crowding and a lack of hygiene products. They’re trapped. We know prisons are an incubator – just like cruise ships – with close confines and limited health services. We have seen women over the years buzzing for medical assistance, and not receiving it; a woman gave birth on a cell floor, alone. So, we’re really concerned.

The health of women in prison is worse than the broader community. We know they have a lot of medical issues, including immune system issues, respiratory issues and diabetes. So once the coronavirus hits inside the prison, it will spread like wildfire – and we won’t be able to contain it.

If we look at who the women in prison are, we know they’re poor, Aboriginal and have physical and mental health issues. We’re talking about the most marginalised, disadvantaged group of women and girls in our community.

Currently, 40 per cent of women in prison are on remand; so they’re still innocent, they haven’t been found guilty. They can be self-isolated in the community so they don’t contract the virus.

Another 20-30 per cent of women in prison are there for minor breaches of parole orders: missing a meeting, slipping up with a drug test, etc.

The majority of women in prison are there for very low-level offences; not rape or murder. We can’t dismiss these women as horrific criminals and scum, because they’re not.

The Queensland productivity commission released a report in January saying the average sentence of a person in prison in Queensland is 3.9 months.

If we leave these people in prison, 3.9 months will turn into a death sentence.

A prison officer at Wolston men’s correctional centre has already tested positive to COVID-19. All of the men in prison there have tested negative, but once it hits, we’re not going to be able to stop it.

At Sisters Inside, we’re working with the parole board to reassess every woman on remand and applying for bail in the courts to get them out. We’re hoping to do this for a number of women out, but it’s not enough.

We need to come from a place of humanity and dignity for all – not just certain groups of people in our community who are deemed more worthy than others, like tourists returning from overseas and being placed in hotels.

Every human life is worth something, not only to them, but also to their loved ones. We must value humans more than we value property and money.

The best way to end this pandemic is to stay inside and self-isolate, so we need to give women and children in prison the opportunity to do that.”

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