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Prisoners need access to lawyers urgently

Queenslanders are unnecessarily being left to languish in prison, often for days on end in solitary confinement because they have extremely limited access to legal advice, according to the state’s peak prisoner legal advocate.

Prisoners’ Legal Service (PLS) Director and Principal Solicitor Helen Blaber today (9 February 2022) said the restrictions on freedoms and risk of transmission due to the global COVID-19 pandemic are taking a toll on all Queenslanders, but have been far worse for people in prison.

Ms Blaber said inmates are currently being subjected to severe conditions such as solitary confinement, loss of family contact and overcrowding, without access to basic technology such as mobile phones or the internet to help maintain wellbeing.

She also said many current prisoners were serving unnecessary time locked behind bars simply because they are unable to make contact with their legal representatives.

“PLS acknowledge the significant challenges faced by authorities in managing COVID-19 in prison,’’ Ms Blaber said.

“But, for someone in prison, access to a lawyer is an essential service which cannot be compromised.’’

She said the current crisis of limited telephone contact facing locked down inmates in Queensland was addressed by corrective services authorities in the United Kingdom at the start of the pandemic, and that a similar program should be adopted here.

“There are ways and means this can be achieved while maintaining safety and security,’’ Ms Blaber said.

“Almost two years ago, prisoners in the United Kingdom were provided with secure mobile phone handsets containing locked SIM cards to enable them to maintain contact with others during COVID-19 lockdowns.

“In that jurisdiction, many prisons already had in-cell telephones and continued installation of in-cell telephones occurred. This is a stark contrast to the technology available to prisoners in Queensland who generally need to leave their unit and attend a designated area within the prison to receive a legal call.”

Throughout the pandemic, PLS has consistently raised concerns about the health risks and control measures faced by people in prison.

“As one would expect, the criminal justice system has continued to operate despite the recent surge of COVID-19 cases in Queensland,’’ she said.

“If the mechanisms required to arrest, imprison and prosecute people can function, the safeguards within our legal system to protect their rights must be given equal priority. 

“Delayed access to a lawyer can result in people spending longer in prison. For example, PLS representation often results in a person being released from custody on parole.

“Preventing criminal lawyers from taking instructions results in people’s charges being adjourned and bail applications being delayed. This raises serious concerns about arbitrary restrictions on people’s liberty.’’

The statement comes after Queensland Community and Corrective Services Commissioner Paul Stewart APM on Monday published an open letter which acknowledged working in prisons was an incredibly challenging job, and that added stress placed on the system by COVID-19 had made it even more difficult. 

“There are just over 9100 adults in custody in Queensland,’’ Commissioner Stewart said.

“At the time of writing this, 454 prisoners were COVID-19 positive.

“Internationally, prisons are recognised as vulnerable facilities, due to the confined nature of the accommodation and the generally poorer health of prisoners than the general community.

“Of course, our officers are working in the same environment, and keeping them safe while they continue their vital frontline work is an absolute priority for us.”

Ms Blaber said Section 29 of the Human Rights Act 2019 (Qld) provides that a person who is arrested or detained on a criminal charge must be promptly brought before a court and has the right to be brought to trial without unreasonable delay.

Section 32 of the Human Rights Act 2019 (Qld) further provides that a person charged with a criminal offence is entitled, without discrimination, to a range of minimum guarantees, including, but not limited to:

  • having adequate time and facilities to prepare the person’s defence and to communicate with a lawyer or advisor chosen by the person
  • being tried without unreasonable delay.

“PLS is concerned these human rights are being unreasonably restricted for those prisoners who are not being provided timely access to legal conferences,’’ Ms Blaber said.

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