Overcrowded NSW prisons could become incubators for COVID-19 just like cruise ships, experts warn, as they call for people awaiting trial to be released.
UNSW criminology professor Eileen Baldry says it's impossible for the government to ensure safe physical distancing in the state's overflowing prisons, so any COVID-19 infection would spread like wildfire.
"Just like cruise ships, people in prisons are living so closely together they (jails) could easily become incubators," Prof Baldry told AAP.
The NSW government passed laws last week giving the Corrective Services commissioner the power to grant conditional parole to low-risk offenders where necessary.
Corrective Services NSW told AAP while the legislation provided that authority at this stage, there were no plans for the early release of prisoners.
The NSW Council for Civil Liberties wants the Bail Act amended to ensure courts take into account the fact that the pandemic has caused major delays in finalising cases.
"An express provision ... which provides that the court must take into account the risks posed by COVID-19 to inmates, correctional staff and other gaol workers, their families and the community more broadly, would send a clear message to police and the courts," council president Nicholas Cowdery QC said in a statement.
About 30 per cent of NSW prisoners are on remand awaiting their day in court. About 50 per cent of them will be found not guilty.
"These prisoners are not serious threats to society - they are not violent offenders," Prof Baldry argued.
The state government should look at alternatives, such as bail hostels, to house low-risk offenders awaiting trial, the academic said.
Solicitor Peter O'Brien regularly speaks with clients inside the state's prison system.
He has noticed an increase in anxiety and feelings of uncertainty, especially after prisoners lost face-to-face visits with families and friends as a result of the coronavirus threat.
"That was the one thing they really looked forward to," Mr O'Brien said.
"Most prisoners will be released at some stage; we're worried this will have a deleterious impact on their ability to reform.
"The conditions inside prisons at the moment are more onerous than ever before."
Prof Baldry believes prisoners could soon be locked inside their cells for long periods of time
"We're talking hours and hours without being let out - it's like being locked in your bathroom all day."
Mr O'Brien wants inmates serving short sentences and those jailed for minor infringements, such as not paying traffic fines, to be released on parole to ease pressure within prisons.
Australian Associated Press