Prisoner populations are rising. Because of overcapacity, infectious diseases transmission in prisons is a concern. Prison cell spatial density (that is, the square metres of cell floor area allocated per person) is a key public health issue.
Corrective Services NSW and NSW Health commissioned UNSW Sydney justice health experts to review the global evidence on the link between prison cell spatial density and infectious diseases. An expert advisory panel comprising of infectious diseases experts, public health professionals, academic staff and custodial administrators helped guide the review.
The review found mostly consistent evidence that cell spatial density is associated with clinically verifiable infectious diseases. Care should be taken in the transferability of the findings due to differences in study populations and prison settings.
“Despite of regional and national standards for prison cell size and spatial density levels, governments often contravene them, placing incarcerated people at risk of infectious disease and poor wellbeing. Our findings contributed to NSW being the first jurisdiction internationally, that we aware of, to have legally binding standards for newly built prison cells that meet international guidelines.”
Dr Paul Simpson, research fellow of the Justice Health Research Program, UNSW School of Population Health
This research informed revisions to the Public Health Amendment (Correctional Centres) Regulation 2016, under the Public Health Act 2010 (NSW). As a result, Corrective Services NSW are now required to comply with minimum floor area conditions for all newly constructed single and double occupancy prison cells. These cell sizes exceed standards called for by the United Nations’ European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Additional revisions to the Regulation included improved powers for the NSW Chief Health Officer to prevent and manage the risk of infectious disease outbreaks in NSW prisons.
During the pandemic, Legal Aid NSW commissioned the justice health team to provide four expert opinion reports on COVID-19 and its potential impact on people in NSW prisons. These reports assisted legal practitioners, magistrates and judges in local and district courts in decisions about incarceration and the risk posed by COVID-19. The team’s expert opinions were also endorsed in several NSW Supreme Court cases. Legal Aid NSW stated that criminal lawyers, who used the reports in court submissions, were instrumental in contributing to the sharp decline of the prison population during the first year of the pandemic.