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Published: 18 August 2022


COVID 19 has required significant changes to the way our prisons operate in NSW. New policies of suppression and isolation were introduced in 2020.

COVID 19 has required significant changes to the way our prisons operate in NSW. New policies of suppression and isolation were introduced in 2020. These policies were in reaction to the highly infectious nature of the virus and the low vaccination rate of inmates. There has been a slight relaxation of these policies throughout 2022, however the impact on inmates remains. The impact on inmates can also vary depending on the community rate of infections and the correctional centre at which they are housed.

The most significant changes were:

  • Quarantine for new inmates
  • Introduction of isolation hubs
  • Suspension of activities

New Inmates

New inmates are persons that have recently arrived at a correctional facility after being bail refused, or sentenced to a term of imprisonment. After COVID 19 screening, the first two weeks are spent in quarantine to limit the spread of the virus within the correctional facility. This period is particularly tough on new inmates as the shock of entering the system is coupled with the uncomfortable nature of being isolated.

Under quarantine, inmates are usually housed ‘two out’, meaning two inmates living in one cell.

The following restrictions apply:

  • No leaving the cell
  • No exercise time in the yard
  • No social visits
  • No ability to work

Isolation Hubs

Correctional Services’ policy mandates that any cold or flu like symptoms will result in a period of isolation and testing for COVID 19. All positive inmates are housed in ‘isolation hubs’, which are dedicated care facilities. Any inmate that requires immediate medical attention is transferred to a public hospital.

It seems to be a common practice for the positive inmates to be transferred to Metropolitan Remand & Reception Centre. The conditions of the isolation hubs consist of:

  • Poor sanitation
  • Inadequate ventilation
  • Unless urgent, reduced medical care
  • Nil contact with other inmates or visitors

Suspension of activities

Inmates require social connection and meaningful activities to provide stimulation and to improve their chances of rehabilitation and reduce the likelihood of institutionalisation.

COVID 19 has resulted in a restriction or suspensions of many activities:

  • Social and family visits
  • Rehabilitation programs
  • Non-essential inmate work

The restriction of activities is coupled with extended lockdowns of inmates, which as you can imagine has a significant impact on the inmates’ wellbeing.

Health Impact

Being confined in a cell can lead to worsening of mental health conditions. The extended lockdowns and lack of ‘meaningful and structured activities’[1] (education, work and exercise) have documented adverse mental health impacts. Dr Andrew Ellis considers COVID 19 will promote the ‘development of new psychiatric conditions’[2] for inmates.

The increased concern for inmates’ mental health is coupled with the reality that inmates generally have a ‘poorer health profile’[3] compared to the broader society. A recent report of NSW prisons has concluded that the biggest issue facing inmates is the lack of health care.[4]

This issue is gaining attention in society due to the large number of inmates in NSW. At the end of 2022, there were 12,336 people in custody in NSW.

Legal Impact

As a result, the Courts have recognised the impacts of COVID 19 as being particularly onerous. The onerous nature of the impacts has been the central issue of many appeals including:

  • McKinnon v R [2020] NSWCCA 106
  • R v Tangi (No 12) [2020] NSWSC 547
  • R v Kelso [2020] NSWDC 157

These decisions revolve around the brutal social and mental impact of suspending visits and extended lockdowns. Morrisons have successfully submitted this onerous nature may be a mitigating factor during sentencing.

At Morrisons we are specialist criminal and traffic lawyers based in Wollongong and the Southern Highlands. If you require advice or representation, you can book an appointment with one of our expert criminal lawyers.


[1] Tony Butler et al, Report on COVID-19 and the Impact on New South Wales Prisoners (Report, 16 April 2020) 12.

[2] 57 Andrew Ellis, COVID-19 and Mental Health Issues for Prisoners: Updated Report to Legal Aid (Expert Report, 29 August 2021) 2.

[3] Inspector of Custodial Services (NSW), Full House: The Growth of the Inmate Population in NSW (Report 2015) 11

[4] Inspector of Custodial Services (NSW), Full House: The Growth of the Inmate Population in NSW (Report 2015) 11.

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