The New South Wales government has been criticised for its “outrageous” refusal to reveal inmate vaccination rates, as it announced a lockdown of the prison system due to fears a Covid outbreak at the Parklea correctional centre may have spread.
On Monday, Corrective Services NSW, the government agency charged with managing the state’s 13,118 prisoners, announced all its prisons would lock down after an outbreak at the privately-run Parklea jail doubled to more than 60 cases.
It is the largest outbreak among the prison population in NSW since the pandemic began and sparked fears of a wider problem, as the number of cases among staff at the Bathurst jail rose to nine.
Guardian Australia understands there was significant concern that the outbreak may have spread due to the transportation of prisoners between jails.
Parklea, in Sydney’s north-west, is one of two major remand prisons in the city, and Guardian Australia understands a number of inmates at other correctional facilities across the state have been deemed close contacts after being transported from the jail.
“We still don’t know where the original infection has come from, but it has gotten in to Parklea, which is a privately managed jail, and the concern is over the last few weeks you would have had inmates moving in and out of there and being transferred around the state,” Stewart Little, the secretary of the Public Service Association of NSW, said.
Little said a number of positive cases had also been moved from Parklea correctional centre to a purpose-built quarantine section at Sydney’s other major remand jail at Silverwater. However, that facility was now at capacity, he said, as cases recorded in other parts of the state, including two in Broken Hill, were transported for isolation.
“We understand there are about 42 cases at Silverwater but those are in managed isolation. The issue at Parklea is that you’re dealing with an outbreak,” he said.
“There were just too many to move them all from Parklea to the [quarantine facility] at Silverwater so essentially they’ve said well you’re just going to have to manage those infected inmates.”
On Monday the NSW chief medical officer, Dr Kerry Chant, revealed she was “very concerned” about the outbreaks among the prison population, and said the state would look at introducing rapid antigen testing in jails as well as ramp up the vaccination of inmates.
“It is a complex operational environment. People are living in close quarters. People are coming in to work in the prisons and Covid can be introduced and we have high turnover,” she said.
But even as Chant said the state would push to “ramp up” the vaccination of inmates, NSW has refused to reveal the level of immunisation among both prisoners and staff.
For months both the Public Service Association and non-government agencies such as Human Rights Watch have been calling on the government to speed up vaccination in prisoners and jail staff amid fears of an outbreak.
While both were treated as priority vaccination recipients in the federal government’s rollout, the state has not revealed vaccination rates for the prison population as it has with other groups such as disability or aged care residents.
Human Rights Watch researcher Sophie McNeill said it was “outrageous” the NSW government was not releasing vaccination data, saying the organisation suspected the prison population “doesn’t appear to have been prioritised” despite being recognised as a particularly vulnerable group.
“You’ve seen from the examples overseas how quickly Covid can spread in prisons, it’s such a vulnerable population with high rates of underlying medical conditions, there’s difficulty with social distancing because of close proximity and overcrowding, we have to have learned those lessons,” she said.
“The situation unfolding now in NSW is really alarming and I think governments have been a little bit complacent but people have been trying to wake them up.”
Corrective Services NSW has been contacted for comment.