About a quarter of the more than 160 inmates infected with Covid-19 inside the New South Wales prison system are Aboriginal, as corrections officials concede the lagging vaccine rollout was due in part to a lack of access to Pfizer doses.
There are now 166 Covid-19 positive inmates across the entire NSW corrections system, including 10 new cases recorded up to 8pm on Tuesday.
The bulk of them are inside the privately operated Parklea jail in Sydney’s north-west after an outbreak within the prison late last month. Of those, 40 are Aboriginal, including two women, Guardian Australia understands.
As cases continue to rise inside the jail, focus has turned to a lagging rollout inside the NSW corrections system. Despite prisoners being identified as a priority population in the federal government’s vaccination roadmap, NSW has fallen behind the rest of the states in vaccinating inmates.
On Saturday Guardian Australia revealed that vaccines earmarked for prisoners had been redirected to HSC students in Sydney despite inmates making multiple requests for jabs.
Corrections officials on Wednesday held a special briefing in which the executive director of clinical operations at the Justice Health department, Wendy Hoey, confirmed what multiple sources told Guardian Australia was an almost complete lack of access to Pfizer doses within the corrections system, prior to the outbreak in Parklea.
In a recording of the briefing, Hoey blamed “hesitancy” in part for the state’s low rate of vaccination – despite state-by-state comparisons which show NSW is well behind the rest of the country in vaccinating its prison population – but also admitted the vaccine rollout had been a “bumpy ride”.
“We started rolling out the vaccinations in March 2021 and we started off with gusto, we had an amazing program of running out AstraZeneca around the state and we were going to have it done [within] 44 weeks,” she said.
“Of course we’ve all seen what has happened with the vaccination program in the community … it’s been replicated with what we’ve done. It’s been a bumpy ride and it has been difficult.”
Hoey told the briefing that only “last week” the corrections department had received “a massive amount of Pfizer” which was now being used to push for a target of 2,000 vaccinations a day across the state’s prison population.
“We’ve been around to all of the [corrections] centres with vaccines at least once, the majority twice, but this is the first time we’ve gone out with a solid supply of Pfizer,” she said.
The sped up rollout, Hoey said, meant corrections were now targeting a 70% first-dose rate among NSW prisoners by Sunday – a huge increase from the 26.1% figure reported by the Justice Health department on Monday.
During the briefing on Wednesday, the acting commissioner of the NSW corrections service, Kevin Corcoran, revealed that after the outbreak was first discovered in Parklea about 198 prisoners who had been transferred to 23 other jails across the state were forced to isolate, prompting the lockdown of the entire prison system.
“We’re still getting people going positive in [Parklea] and it will be some time before we get to the point where we can say we’re over that particular outbreak,” he told the briefing.
“We’re pushing hard to get vaccination rates up to acceptable levels.”
While corrections officials have blamed hesitancy for the slow rollout in NSW until now, other states and territories have reported far superior rollouts. In the Northern Territory 65% of prisoners in Darwin have received their first dose and 54% are fully vaccinated.
A spokesperson from the NT justice department said every person entering a prison in the territory is offered a vaccine.
Guardian Australia has also previously reported on inmates in the system who had made repeated requests to be vaccinated.
While the increase in the overall vaccination rate in NSW is welcome news for justice advocates and the family members of inmates, the figures do not include the three privately-operated jails in NSW, including Parklea.
Justice Health insists it is unable to provide vaccination data or case numbers for private jails, saying it doesn’t have access to the information and directing media to contact the three separate companies which manage the private prisons.
But those providers were on Wednesday refusing to release vaccination data. In a statement, a spokeswoman for GEO, the company managing Junee prison, did not answer questions about the rate of vaccination inside the jail or when the program began.
Sign up to receive the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning
Similarly a spokeswoman for Serco, which manages Australia’s largest jail, the Clarence Correctional Centre on the NSW north coast, did not answer questions about the vaccine rollout.
“Clarence Correctional Centre has implemented best-practice policies around Covid-19 management, including making Covid-19 vaccinations available to inmates since April 2021 in line with the guidelines from NSW Health,” a spokesperson said.
“Vaccination clinics at the centre are conducted on a rolling schedule to support inmate vaccination.”
At Parklea, where the outbreak is centred, Guardian Australia understands that about 1,100 vaccines have been administered. Tracking the overall vaccination rate inside the jail has proven difficult because it is largely a remand prison, meaning its population is fluid.