Six Victorian prisons have been placed in lockdown after an officer working at a men’s jail in Melbourne tested positive for Covid-19, prompting calls from legal groups to release low-risk prisoners during the pandemic.
The officer, who the Guardian understands is male, is employed by GEO, the private correctional services provider which operates the Ravenhall Correctional Centre in Melbourne’s west.
While he had been in self-isolation since 16 July after learning he was a close contact of a confirmed Covid-19 case, five further facilities – Hopkins Correctional Centre, Langi Kal Kal Prison, Barwon Prison, Fulham and Loddon – have been placed in lockdown while Corrections Victoria investigates which other staff and prisoners he may have had contact with.
The Guardian understands that while the officer only worked at the Ravenhall facility, officers and prisoners he came into contact with may have moved to different facilities.
A Victorian justice department spokeswoman told the Guardian “measures are being taken in line with Corrections Victoria’s coronavirus management plans”.
The spokeswoman said the department was “working with the Department of Health and Human Services to limit the potential spread of the virus and keep staff and prisoners safe”.
An earlier statement from Correction Victoria said “contact tracing is currently underway, with impacted staff and prisoners being notified”. The affected prisons will also undergo “thorough cleaning”.
Tuesday’s measures come after Malmsbury Youth Justice Facility was placed into lockdown over the weekend, and an incoming young prisoner at Parkville Youth Justice Centre tested positive during the 14-day quarantine period, which is mandatory for all new prisoners.
On Friday, a male prisoner at the Metropolitan Remand Centre in Melbourne also tested positive for Covid-19. He had recently entered custody and returned the positive result during the mandatory 14-day quarantine period.
Greg Barns, spokesman for Australian Lawyers Alliance, said the lockdowns meant “the need to release selected prisoners is even more urgent now”.
“People in prison are at extreme risk of contracting the virus simply because they are detained,” he said.
“In our overcrowded prison system, social distancing is impossible and lockdowns create an increasingly intolerable and unstable environment. Lockdowns mean solitary confinement and no programs, and an increased risk of mental harm.”
Barns said in extraordinary times society needed to adapt to ensure protecting public health was the first priority.
“Non-violent prisoners, prisoners who are on remand simply because they have no home address, and vulnerable prisoners such as those over 65 should be released now … the Victorian government should already have done this,” he said.
Nerita Waight, the co-chair of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, said the Victorian government should “urgently and responsibly release at-risk Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from adult and youth prisons due to our high vulnerability to severe and lethal impacts of Covid-19”.
“Covid-19 has spread like wildfire in prisons overseas,” Waight said.
Earlier on Tuesday, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews announced there were 374 new Covid-19 cases recorded in Victoria over the previous day. Three people – a woman aged over 100, a woman in her 90s and a woman in her 80s – died over the previous 24 hours.
There are now 3,078 active coronavirus cases in Victoria, with new restrictions mandating the wearing of a mask in metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire coming into effect at midnight on Wednesday.
In NSW, health authorities on Tuesday announced there were 13 new Covid-19 cases recorded over the previous 24 hours, as the number of cases linked to the Crossroads Hotel cluster surged to 50.
Scott Morrison, appearing on ABC’s 7.30 program on Tuesday night, was asked if he would wear a mask if he went to see a Cronulla Sharks game in NSW, or in situations where social distancing can’t take place.
“The recommendation in New South Wales is if you are unable to have social distancing in place then you should and if that were the case, then I would,” the prime minister said.
“It will mean for some period of time certainly in Victoria, and potentially in other states, where there are outbreaks, the wearing of masks. It means that it hasn’t gone anywhere. We can’t live like it has.”