The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) says it is “highly concerned” by reports that prisoners are undertaking the work of cleaning common areas in prisons as part of an effort to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19.

Inmates in some Victorian prisoners have been offered courses to become accredited in some of the skills required for coronavirus cleaning, and have been cleaning the general areas of some prisons.

In a statement, VALS said while it supported people in prisons being provided training, it did not consider it appropriate for detained people to undertake the high-risk work in the midst of a pandemic.

Legal services and human rights advocates have been pushing for the release of low-risk inmates, and in particular Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, in an effort to avoid preventable deaths in custody in the event of a coronavirus outbreak within the justice system.

There are 16 active cases of the virus in Victoria’s prisons and youth justice centres, according to the Department of Justice.

VALS CEO Nerita Waight said the government need to demonstrate its commitment to preventing more Aboriginal deaths in custody by “ensuring robust hygiene and cleaning practices, and not unnecessarily putting the people in its care in harm’s way.”