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Packed prisons mean problems

IT’S TOUGH times for Members in Victorian and Western Australian prisons as overcrowding and staff shortages put correctional staff in dangerous, untenable situations.

Just last week the ABC reported that government attitudes to crime and punishment in Australia were sending “record numbers of people to jail”.

 “Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show there are now more than 33,000 inmates – the highest number ever in Australia – and jails in every state and territory except Tasmania are overflowing”.

We may not have as serious a problem as other states right now but the Tasmanian Government is following the same tack taken by WA and Victoria by seeking mandatory sentencing and scrapping suspended sentences, and prison population issues worsened when these governments made similar legislative changes.

Overcrowding means serious issues for corrections staff with tensions rising among inmates as prisons become increasingly cramped.

We talked with CPSU Victorian Secretary Karen Batt and Western Australian Prison Officers’ Union (WAPOU) Secretary John Welch about what was happening in prisons in their states.

 

Read about it below.

 

Western Australia

In recent weeks two of this state’s biggest prisons were in lockdown because of staff shortages.

The situation is dangerous for Custodial Officers and other prison staff, with the lockdowns increasing tension among inmates and causing serious safety concerns. Western Australia’s prisons are massively overcrowded, with 4900 inmates in a prison system designed for 3500. In response, WAPOU started the Respect the Risk campaign, which promotes the rights of prison officers.

WAPOU Secretary John Welch said just about every prison in the state was overcrowded.

“The Casuarina Prison, where dangerous criminals are kept, is supposed to house 525 and currently it’s sitting at 760-770.  The Albany region prison is at 170% capacity. On top of this we’re experiencing staffing shortfalls in quite significant proportions.”

Mr Welch said in WA 200 staff were needed to “get back to an even keel”, and while new prison facilities are opening in the medium term, for the foreseeable future, there’s no solution.

550 beds in the state’s new facilities still won’t cope with the burgeoning prison population as changes to burglary laws mean an increase of 100-200 prisoners in the first two years alone, with demand set to skyrocket.

Mr Welch said the severe crowding problem started to emerge in 2007 and worsened in 2009 after the incoming state government changed the parole board chair and the number of inmates offered parole was non-existent for a time.

“I think of it like a water pipe – if you bung up the pipe going in, you’re going to get blockages at the other end.”

As far as staffing shortages go, Mr Welch said the problem was ongoing.

“It goes in cycles. The government realises it has a recruitment problem and recruits like crazy, then relaxes and takes its foot off the pedal a bit and all it starts again. It’s an ongoing, chronic problem, and the government has, to its credit, put in some new facilities.”

But the government is also denying the scope of the issue, changing its language when talking about overcrowding to avert attention from the problem.

“The terminology’s changed – it now talks about a facility’s operational capacity, rather than the capacity the prison is designed to take. So a prison might be designed for 525 but the government is saying the operational capacity, how many people you can squeeze in there, is 800. This means double bunking and other means are used to deal with the lack of space. The atmosphere becomes more risky and dangerous.”

Prisoners in close quarters are more likely to be difficult and irritable, which leads to more assaults and critical incidents. 75 WA prison officers were assaulted on the job last year alone.

“Prisons are like a water tank – it’s a fixed space, the walls don’t change, and if you change the flow of water in or out you’re stuffed.”

Read more about what’s happening in the WA prison system and WAPOU’s Respect the Risk campaign here.

 

Victoria

We talked with CPSU Victoria’s Karen Batt last week, when she was also featured on the 7.30 Report.

It’s a fraught time for custodial staff in her state too. Just this Sunday CPSU Members at Port Phillip Prison stopped work in response to recent negotiations where employer G4S Custodial Services was trying to change the roster, reducing staffing levels at a prison which is already well above capacity.

Like WA, legislative changes continue to impact on the rising inmate population.

“Victoria is about to pass 6000 people in jail,” Ms Batt said. “The projections in the state budget show that’s going to be 7000 in the next financial year. Our state has the fastest growing prison population in Australia.”

There’s no space to spare, which means double bunking, stretcher beds in day areas and activity rooms. Now shipping containers are being deployed at Dhurringile Prison. These purpose-built shipping containers have arrived from China and are being fitted out.

Ms Batt said prison overcrowding in the state meant escalating violence and assaults – a massive health and safety issue.

There’s an inappropriate mix of prisoners who are classified differently, so inmates who’d normally go to a medium security facility are going into low security.

“We’re seeing a volatile mix of mental health issues, the emergence of gangs inside the prison walls and a huge amount of tension.”

Ms Batt said the government was undertaking a massive recruitment program, which had both good and bad points. “People are coming into work faster but they’re coming in with less experience and training. We’re also seeing a huge influx of casual employees, which has implications for rosters.”

Changes to parole and sentencing are also exacerbating overcrowding.

Ms Batt said the government’s “tough-on-crime” stance meant boosting police numbers while under-resourcing other areas.

“The government’s only tough on crime outside the prison walls and doesn’t want to know if it’s happening inside the walls, like increased violence because of overcrowding. It’s a fundamental flaw in the government’s approach.”

Staff shortages are also crippling the system in both private and government-run prisons, with attempts at a new rostering regime compounding this.

A company called Shift Work Solutions is offering ‘solutions’ to prisons about how their rosters operate, namely proposing 12 hours shifts.  In Victoria Officers historically work 80 hours over nine days. Shift Work Solutions is currently working with company G4S Custodial Services to change the roster pattern, which means fewer staff on site for any shift.

“In Victoria there’s a fight for unilateral roster change to a women’s prison here, which means 80 hours over seven days, with 14 days’ notice of change, and those 80 hours can be in any configuration over that period.”

Ms Batt said the government was successful in the first stage of its case for this but couldn’t impose these changes until after an appeal in August.

“The government is attempting to remove penalty rates that go with the afternoon and night shift, which means 25% off take home pay for officers .It’s not looking at the policy; it simply wants to get rid of the take home pay.”

 

Tasmania

In our own state, the Liberal Government’s flagged several legislative changes that would impact on our prison system’s capacity including abolishing suspended sentencing, which would no doubt see more people in the justice system end up in prison.

The Workplaces (Protection from Protesters) Bill 2014, which passed the House of Assembly but is yet to go before the Legislative Council, also seeks to introduce mandatory sentencing. Another piece of legislation in the pipeline looks at mandatory minimum sentencing for assaults on police.

All of these changes would mean an increase in the number of prisoners going into the system.

In Community Corrections there’s already a capacity issue with programs like the court-mandated drug program experiencing huge demand and long waiting lists.

The CPSU is concerned about the safety of our Members in all correctional environments and what an overcrowding problem could mean to them, especially considering what’s happening in other states.

“Whatever people’s opinions are on the various forms of tough-on-crime policies, our Members must be properly resourced to enact whatever law the government puts in place”, CPSU Acting Tasmanian Secretary Mat Johnston said.  “The experiences of our fellow CPSU Members in Victoria and WA should be seen as cautionary tales. When making decisions on law and order policy governments need to consider the flow-on effects.” 

The CPSU recently met with Tasmanian Corrections Minister Vanessa Goodwin to outline the experiences of our colleagues interstate and to seek assurances on resourcing for Community Corrections and the Tasmania Prison Service.

“We got a good hearing from Ms Goodwin who indicated she was aware she’d have to consider resources and services in the context of legislative change”, Mr Johnston said.  “While this is heartening at first glance, it’s difficult to see how the government can persist with its proposed legislation while appropriately resourcing community and custodial corrections in Tasmania’s current economic and fiscal position.”

The CPSU wants to see further work by government to model likely flow-on effects from changes to sentencing options and the proposed criminalisation of protests, with a particular eye to establishing realistic resourcing models before any legislative change. 

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