People who are incarcerated in Criminal Justice Settings during the COVID-19 pandemic
Including those who are living with HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
ASHM COVID-19 Taskforce interim recommendations
Prepared by members of the Taskforce's Justice Health Cluster Group and the Taskforce Chair
UPDATED ON: 30th July 2020.
Disclaimer: This ASHM document is designed to provide current and relevant information to clinicians and other healthcare providers to optimise the health and wellbeing of people who are incarcerated in criminal justice settings during the COVID-19 pandemic, including those who are living with HIV, hepatitis B, or hepatitis C. The recommendations provided are based on the opinions of the authors and are not intended as explicit guidelines for standard of care or practice. This document does not reflect a systematic review of the evidence, but will be revised to include relevant future systematic review findings of the National COVID-19 Clinical Evidence Taskforce (1) and other relevant information.
SARS-CoV-2 is spread via airborne droplets or via contact with contaminated surfaces and causes both asymptomatic infection (2, 3) and clinical illness (4). Prevention of infection with this virus requires the capacity to maintain physical distancing, perform regular hand hygiene, and the opportunity for suitable quarantining of people with proven, or suspected COVID-19 illness, or those who have come in contact with someone recently diagnosed with COVID-19. Given the confined physical environment and restrictions of the movement of individuals, and in the context that many prison systems are at, or beyond, capacity, prisons are highly likely to experience outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2, which have occurred already, as reported in many countries (5) . As a result there have been calls for decarceration of prison populations (6) , and for optimising infection control measures in prisons to prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission (5-7) .
In Australia, an open letter written by academics and lawyers was sent to Australian Governments addressing COVID-19 and the criminal justice system (8) . The Chief Executive Officer of ASHM is a signatory to this letter.
In particular, as a result of the endorsement of this open letter, the ASHM COVID-19 Taskforce supports the following:
1. The early release (decarceration) of prisoners, including those living with HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C, who:
The ASHM COVID-19 Taskforce also supports the avoidance of people being remanded in custody as a mechanism to support decarceration. Where prisoners are remanded in custody, in the context of elevated community transmission in some parts of Australia, remandees should be tested for SARS-CoV-2 upon arrival and quarantined in remand centres for 14 days to avoid the potential for onward transmission across the prison system. Within the remand centres, quarantining by day of reception in sub-cohorts is recommended along with screening (either by thermal screening and clinical review, and or by testing on entry and exit is recommended. In addition, the movement of prisoners between detention facilities should be minimised.
The ASHM Taskforce acknowledges that the living and social circumstances of all people, including those living with HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C who are released from prison will be stressful and will include difficulties in adherence to physical distancing guidelines. This may be particularly the case for sudden and unexpected releases that may occur during the COVID-19 pandemic. The ASHM Taskforce therefore also calls for the strengthening of prison to community reintegration services to ensure people released from custody are housed, clothed, fed and given access to medications, including HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C antiviral therapy, to support their ability to physically distance and maintain personal health and well-being. In addition, in light of their over-representation in Australian prisons, strategies need to be developed to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are released from prison are supported in a culturally appropriate way to achieve these outcomes. Post-release support strategies also need to consider potentially reduced capacity within not-for-profit agencies that usually offer post-release services and consult with these agencies on the best ways to enhance their response capabilities.
The ASHM Taskforce also acknowledges the over-representation of people with injecting drug use histories in Australian prisons and that these individuals are at historically greater risk of acquiring HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C. Interruptions to the supply of drugs in prison and the community may therefore heighten health risks (e.g., overdose) for people released from prison. The ASHM Taskforce therefore calls for enhanced capacity to initiate and maintain prisoners and those released from prison on opioid substitution therapy (OST) and to strengthen or implement prison take-home naloxone programs and overdose prevention education programs (9).
2. The maintenance and/or implementation of systems that allow staff and all prisoners, including those living with HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C, to adopt best practice infection control procedures including the wearing of masks (where appropriate), hand sanitation, physical distancing (supported by a reduction in exposure risk via decreasing prison population), and quarantine measures. More specifically, the ASHM Taskforce endorses:
The ASHM Taskforce also calls for careful consideration of the conditions under which affected prisoners are isolated in light of prisoners’ mental health and/or previous experiences of solitary confinement in prison. Of note, mental health issues are prevalent in populations living with HIV and hepatitis C. Physical distancing and quarantine practices should take account of human rights principles and avoid, as much as possible, conditions that place prisoners in sustained isolation akin to solitary confinement. These considerations should particularly apply to prisoners, including those living with HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C, with histories of mental illness. Where possible, opportunities for contactless social engagement and periods spent outdoors with appropriate physical distancing needs to be integrated into COVID-19 quarantining practices in prisons, especially for prisoners with histories of mental illness. In addition, where restrictions on visitations have been enacted, increased access to contactless communication with family and loved ones, such as free and more frequent phone calls and communication via digital platforms, need to be implemented.
3. Bail and non-custodial penalties for all defendants, including those living with HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C, who are not classified as very high risk or deemed as being unable to be appropriately managed in the community
In the general community, people over 60 years of age and people with co-morbidities including hypertension, cardiovascular disease, lung disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic liver disease are at greater risk of poorer outcomes with COVID-19 illness
In the general community, people over 60 years of age and people with co-morbidities including hypertension, cardiovascular disease, lung disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic liver disease are at greater risk of poorer outcomes with COVID-19 illness(4, 11-14). In addition, the Australian Government Department of Health has advised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 50 years and older, with one or more chronic medical conditions, may be at greater risk of serious COVID-19 illness. Some people with HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C may have a greater level of immunosuppression and/or experience other related co-morbidities, making them more vulnerable to infection with SARS-CoV-2 and more severe COVID-19 illness. Hence the responses recommended above should be emphasised when responding to the needs of older prisoners and/or those with comorbidities living with HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C who are likely to be at greater risk of poorer outcomes from the COVID-19 illness.
Measures to optimise these patients’ health should include maintaining smoke-free environments in prison and continuing to support smoking cessation, encouraging appropriate exercise, and optimising diabetic and blood pressure control. We currently recommend not ceasing or switching away from ACE inhibitors or angiotensin receptor blocker medications: there is not enough evidence that these agents increase the risk of worse outcomes of COVID-19 illness(15) and ceasing or switching these agents may cause harm to otherwise stable patients. Implementing new and expanding existing telehealth capacity (be that via telephone or video consultations) in prisons will be needed, alongside systems to maintain prisoner appointments and actively referring and encouraging patients to attend Telehealth appointments with medical and allied health specialists. Clinicians should encourage patients to consider Advance Care Planning, as discussed in a recent paper on the clinical presentation and management of COVID-19(16).