Lifting the veil on the crisis in Victoria’s prisons

A recent Ombudsman’s report is damning of the Victorian criminal justice sector, particularly around issues of accountability and transparency. shutterstock

Victorian Ombudsman George Brouwer’s report on deaths and harm in Victorian prisons may have largely sailed under the public radar, but it shines a rare spotlight on the levels of systemic harm in custody.

The report, released in March, reveals the impact of Victorian custodial practices:

Approximately 55% of the prison population have an identified suicide/self-harm risk rating, while 42% have a psychiatric risk rating indicating mental health concerns.

Importantly, the report also recognises that the move to shut down transparency regarding correctional practice simply increases the potential for further harm.

In 2006, Victoria became one of two Australian jurisdictions (along with the ACT) to enact a Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, which included provisions for the humane treatment of prisoners. However, the erosion of public reporting and the absence of independent and effective oversights in Victoria means there is no public visibility about prisoner treatment and the human costs of criminal justice policies in Victoria.

Reduced visibility

If the 2006 introduction of the Human Rights Charter marked an opportunity to improve custodial conditions and practices, the Victorian government has enacted several moves to ensure any opportunity has been lost.

For example, in 2013, Corrections Victoria announced that routine annual statistical reporting on the prisoner population would no longer be published. This decision coincided with the peak of negative publicity arising from the overcrowding crisis.

The Victorian Department of Justice claims this information doubles up with data published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) census. But ABS figures provide limited demographic information according to sex and Indigenous status in individual states.

The Victorian Parliamentary Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee report on female prisoner numbers documented rises in numbers of sentenced and unsentenced migrant and Indigenous women in Victorian prisons. We know these rates have continued to increase. However, it appears there is now no public data detailing upward trends among these vulnerable groups.

It appears a cynical exercise on the government’s part to assume the abandonment of basic public reporting will somehow avert negative publicity in response to increasing prisoner numbers.

Silencing external commentary

Other moves include silencing non-government and other government agencies that work with Corrections Victoria.

We know through our research on female prisoners after release, for example, that transitional support programs contracted by Corrections Victoria to the community sector have been subject to onerous confidentiality agreements. These have prevented organisations from voicing public concerns about conditions in prison.

And as we found during the course of our research into female prisoners’ post-release deaths, there is an increasing institutional collaboration between the Victoria Coroner’s Court and the Department of Justice. This has effectively curtailed access to inquest files which should be public.

Fatal systemic failures

Corrections Victoria’s refusal to take action on systemic causes of harm in the prison system is having fatal consequences. The lack of official monitoring and prevention measures put in place following deaths in custody – and also with regard to the hidden toll of post-release deaths – remains urgent and unaddressed.

The Australian Institute of Criminology reported that between 2008-09 and 2010-11 the second-highest cause of death in Australian prisons was by hanging. But as Brouwer notes, in Victoria, 38% of cells have hanging points and fail to comply with Corrections Victoria’s cell and fire safety guidelines and the 22-year old Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommendations.

Each year, the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare reports that post-release deaths in Australia far exceed deaths in custody. The problem of people dying after release has been frequently documented as an issue in Victoria, yet monitoring and prevention strategies require urgent attention.

The Office of Correctional Services Review (OCSR) was established in 2007 with the stated purpose of reviewing the performance of prisons and correctional services in Victoria. Since its establishment, it has conducted a series of reviews of serious incidents in prison, such as the death of gangland figure Carl Williams.

However, as Brouwer makes clear, the OCSR is wholly inadequate because the outcomes of its investigations are not publicly reported or tabled in parliament.

The Ombudsman’s report is damning of the Victorian criminal justice sector. Institutional visibility and accountability must be introduced and the recommendations for how we can constructively implement positive system change must be adhered to.

Public reporting is vital when the numbers of disadvantaged and vulnerable people entering and exiting the prison system are increasing. Victoria needs to follow the example of states such as Western Australia and New South Wales where the establishment of custodial service inspectors has been conducive to maintaining correctional openness and accountability.

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