At time of arrest a person’s valuables are bagged to be securely held until the prisoner is released. But reports suggest that within the prison system theft – by guards, police and fellow inmates – is widespread. By Jack Kerr.

Inmates powerless against theft within prison system

The co-ordinator of prisoners’ rights group Justice Action, Brett Collins.

No one knows for sure why Laura didn’t pick up her property as she left prison. “I think,” says Nikki, a support worker who knew her well, “she just wanted to get away quickly.”

A few days later, Nikki was delivering the goods to Laura’s funeral. Laura had been inside just a few days, sent to a maximum-security facility for minor offences such as shoplifting and failing to show up to court. “She had such a raging addiction at the time, that she was never going to appear in court,” Nikki says.

Behind bars, Laura had been going through the hell of a forced withdrawal with little support. It was hardly a surprise she couldn’t wait to get out of there, even if she was intending to stay clean. But one last hit became just that.

When Nikki turned up to the prison to pick up Laura’s “valuables bag”, three silver rings and her costume jewellery were missing. They were lost in transit. It’s a euphemism. The truth is, her things were stolen. “The screws take it,” one social worker tells me. “The cops take it.”

The rings would be the only thing of value the family had to pass on to Laura’s young daughter. When Laura’s mother wrote to the authorities, she was told: “[I] do not want to insult you with an offer of compensation, as I am aware that no amount of money can replace [her] personal items.”

Where exactly the items ended up, no one knows. One document says the items disappeared when Laura was transferred from one facility to another. While she signed the form saying they’d been moved with her, a staff member had failed to carry out the required check.

“[They] simply assumed that it was there and recorded it as being received,” wrote Rod Wise, a senior member of the Victorian Department of Justice, in a letter to Laura’s mother. “It is now not possible to say whether the jewellery was actually received.”

But subsequent correspondence revealed there were few if any checks at any stage of the process. At one point, Laura’s mother was told the improbable story that her daughter probably took them out of storage at the remand centre and wore them to court.

Compensation of $150 was eventually offered. It came in a letter stating: “There is no economic measure of what has occurred, but [we] note that your proposal nonetheless appears to attach a value to the loss.”

The family responded that it would accept a $5000 trust for Laura’s daughter. They settled for $500, which is, depending on who you speak to, either the maximum compensation allowed in Victoria or double it.

The Saturday Paper has been told by a number of sources involved in the prison system that guards, police and fellow inmates routinely help themselves to prisoners’ property.

“At Port Phillip, it’s rampant,” says James, a current inmate in Victoria’s largest correctional facility. “Sometimes the people that run the prison are more crooked than the people in it.”

Brett Collins, co-ordinator of New South Wales prisoners’ rights group Justice Action, agrees that it is a constant problem. 

“Most times when people are arrested, they have some basic personal items on them,” he says, “and quite often, they are the only things they have in their life.”

Forget about seeing something like a watch or jewellery again, Collins says. “They are very hard to hold on to,” because so many people have access to the property over a prisoner’s time in jail. He calls it “a very leaky system” and says rules meant to ensure the property is protected are routinely ignored.

It can start at the point of arrest. Nikki has heard of police taking the glasses off a person’s head, or pocketing their cash and jewellery. James has had things disappear between the time he was brought in for an interview and his transfer to a custodial centre a short time later. Victoria Police would not respond to broad questions on police theft, saying they would comment only on individual incidents.

The NSW ombudsman found that one inmate moved across the state had a third of his goods go missing en route. Taxpayer-funded compensation had to be offered. “Every time [someone] moves, there’s an opportunity to steal things,” says Collins. “And that happens frequently.”

Those in the property office are notoriously light-fingered, and foreigners arrested at the airport are a particularly easy target, James says. They generally arrive with luggage that they won’t see again until they are being deported. “What recourse do they have, because they are going to be on a plane? … They just have to give it up.”

James says inmates who work in the property office will routinely transfer items they want from one bag to another, which they then take out at a later stage. 

“You see guys walking around with Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses,” he says. “Where did they come from? They usually come out of somebody’s box. They find their way out.”

The NSW ombudsman says property issues are one of the biggest problems facing inmates, and has called it endemic. His most recent annual report included 400 such complaints, mostly informal. That’s down from 501 the previous year, but up on figures from late last decade. Only the categories of “daily routine” and “medical” contained more complaints.

These complaints are likely to represent a small number of actual cases. Collins says it takes a “pretty assertive prisoner” to lodge a complaint. Those who do are made to jump through a number of “long and convoluted” hoops. “And there’s also a sense from the guard: ‘Oh, what are you complaining about? Didn’t you steal something?’ This is a typical sort of abuse of power … People’s rights to have possessions are abused on the ground and people find it very hard to assert that [right].”

A 2005 investigation by the Victorian ombudsman “revealed systemic problems in all facets of handling, storing and transferring of prisoner property”. Property data was inaccurately recorded, filing cabinets were being used as safes in accessible rooms, and so on.

Current Victorian ombudsman Deborah Glass tells The Saturday Paper that rights to property are protected in the state’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities “and we will investigate if there is evidence that prisons are not following the rules”. Her office could not put a dollar value on the missing property.

Corrections Victoria announced in early 2007 that the report’s primary recommendations had been implemented. Property problems have since fallen to be the second-biggest issue in Victorian prisons.

The Saturday Paper asked the relevant departments in the country’s two biggest states about the number of such crimes, the value of the missing goods, and what investigations had taken place. No reply was received. Requests for information from those states’ corrections ministers were also unfruitful.

In response to a question raised by the Greens’ David Shoebridge in budget estimates, the NSW Parliament was recently told “statistics on property-related complaints are not held in all correctional facilities”.

To a subsequent question, he was told: “Inmates are responsible for ensuring they do not accumulate property in excess of limits as restrictions apply on the amount of property that can be transported when an inmate is moved between correctional centres.”

Private prison operator G4S – which operates Victoria’s Port Phillip and South Australia’s Mount Gambier prisons – says it has “appropriate policies and procedures in place”, investigates claims, and co-operates with any ombudsman investigation. It directed inquiries for data to the relevant department.

“I don’t think [authorities] admit that it happens in the first place,” James says. “But they admit that sometimes things can be misplaced. That’s the sort of line they have, you know. Or they just say you didn’t have it.”

As far as Brett Collins is concerned, though, the real property issue prisoners face is holding on to the belongings they have left at home. Unpaid landlords, for example, may simply throw a person’s belongings in the skip. 

“There is a legal obligation on the police to … secure the space [but if] no one returns to pick up the goods … all their personal letters, all their keepsakes, anything that was of personal value is trashed. The powerlessness of somebody who is arrested, who is taken away from their goods, which they would normally protect, is just so obvious and so liable to abuse.”

He says all this makes those sent to jail – already a generally marginalised group – even more disenfranchised. “The chance of standing on your feet when you are released is much reduced.”

Some names have been changed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2015 as "Prison take".

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Jack Kerr
is a journalist and documentary maker.

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