Corrections system in lockdown
It was Halloween 2013, and the station’s cells were badly crowded. The whole place was combustible. One prisoner, a sculpted giant weighing 100 kilograms, was experiencing withdrawal from methamphetamines, cocaine and steroids. Another was badly agitated by the scabies he assumed his cellmate was carrying. Officers thought most prisoners were experiencing cabin fever. The station, in Melbourne’s suburbs, was not designed to hold so many prisoners for so long, nor was it designed as a soak for the remand centres’ overflow. It was at breaking point, and everyone knew it. That night it would make station history.
The steroidal prisoner began smashing his head against walls and threatening to injure staff and other prisoners. A specialist police team were called to remove the powerful, irrational and violent man – or, in police parlance, perform an “extraction”. Meanwhile, the prisoner who had complained of sharing a cell with an infected man told police: “If you’re gonna treat us like animals, we’ll act like animals” and promptly blocked the toilet with paper, pissed and defecated, and began smearing faeces across the cell’s walls. He filled Styrofoam cups with urine, lined them along his bed, and began kicking the cell’s basin from the wall. The extraction team took both men to the Melbourne Custody Centre, which was also overcrowded.
As police wondered if they were incentivising bad behaviour by transferring the men, they were forced to increase cell density by vacating the soiled one. While a forensic cleaning team restored the cell, a third prisoner began sharpening a plastic spoon on the concrete of the exercise yard. Having weaponised the utensil, he placed the spoon to his throat and threatened to kill himself. He too was transferred to the Melbourne Custody Centre.
Never before had the station had three extractions in one day.
No prisoner or officer was seriously harmed, which police command considered fortunate given the circumstances. But the overcrowding of the station had rippling consequences – unsure if there was a bed, police officers would call in to the station to ask whether they should execute minor arrest warrants. Divisional vans were now disproportionately used to transfer prisoners, taking police from their regular duties. Added to this was another complexity: legislation prohibits a prisoner from spending more than 14 days in a police cell, but with remand centres experiencing their own incapacity, police stations and remand centres would perform prisoner swaps on a prisoner’s 13th night in order to satisfy the law. It was a desperate form of musical chairs.
So burdensome was the management of prisoners, the station estimated that 60 per cent of its time was spent on what was normally a responsibility of Corrections Victoria. Worse, the overcrowding and combustibility meant restricted family access to prisoners – which only increased their hostility. The station’s sergeant and police command were concerned that the safety of prisoners and police officers could no longer be guaranteed. And this wasn’t isolated – neither to the day nor to the station. They told the government something had to be done.
In this week’s state budget, Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas announced $1.8 billion for Corrections – the overwhelming majority reserved for prison infrastructure. New beds were pledged – 1600 of them – with a small amount set aside for the design of a new custody centre. The corrections system has been groaning for years under record-breaking levels of prisoners. Currently, Victoria’s prison population is a little over 8000, almost double the number from a decade ago.
This dramatic increase isn’t due to an explosion of violence in the state – for three years, crime in Victoria has decreased. The swelling prisons and overfilling remand centres are the partial result of years of legislative reform. “The setting has been that there was substantial investment in police, and it’s recently increased again,” says Stan Winford, the associate director of RMIT’s Centre for Innovative Justice. “We’ve had reforms to bail laws, to access to parole, and a series of non-custodial options have been removed. In 2011, suspended sentences were phased out.”
In other words: more police meant more arrests, while laws were passed that narrowed access to bail and parole. One result of this is that about 40 per cent of Victoria’s prison population are people on remand – people who may not have even faced trial yet.
In 2013, former High Court justice Ian Callinan released his review into Victoria’s parole system. It was prompted after a ghastly concentration of murders committed by men on parole. Perhaps the highest-profile was the 2012 death of Jill Meagher, who was murdered by the convicted rapist Adrian Bayley. Not only had Bayley been out on bail, but he had also already breached his bail conditions when he assaulted a man outside a pub in Geelong in 2011. Understandably, the public was appalled.
Callinan found a system that too readily favoured the prisoner over public safety, one that was shockingly overworked and under-resourced. The justice examined the Bayley file and found it “ill-organised”. “There was no single document containing a straightforward complete chronology of his criminal history or analytical material relating to it on the files.”
It was not easy to understand, Callinan wrote, why Bayley was free when he was. Few would have disagreed. “He ought to have been known by then to be a recidivist serious, violent sexual offender, with a history of being so from a young age and with an established pattern of doing so.”
Then in January 2016, Dimitrious Gargasoulas ploughed through a busy mall in Melbourne’s CBD killing six. Gargasoulas was on bail at the time of the attack. The volunteer bail justice who had made the decision stepped down and sought counselling. Premier Daniel Andrews promised bail reform, which was enacted last year.
And so, Stan Winford says, here we are. The problem? Prisons aren’t working. Half of prisoners will return to jail within two years of their release – an extraordinary number. And, Winford says, parole reform has had a perverse consequence: prisoners are more likely to serve their full sentence, meaning their release is likely to be unsupervised.
“In Victoria’s Corrections Act, nowhere do you see the word ‘rehabilitation’ or any reference to reducing recidivism,” he says. “Rehabilitation is not best carried out in prison. Prisoners can’t access the internet, for a start. [It] makes preparing for release difficult – finding a house, or a job. It makes studying for remote degrees hard. It’s mostly vocational education that people are being offered. When you move between prisons as [your] security rating changes, you can’t pick up where you left off. That’s a big issue.
“I used to go to the women’s prison not infrequently to provide legal advice, and someone there was teaching IT and had to use these laminated cards to demonstrate the process. A laminated card would serve as the keyboard or computer screen. And men have less access than women. The focus upon men’s prisons is about security and containment. If there’s overcrowding, education falls away. Access to programs [falls] away. They’re not the priority.”
More police and more prison beds have never cost a leader an election. Nor has the extraordinary cost of building and maintaining prisons. Winford says recent studies in Britain suggest voters see prisons as ensuring their personal safety, for which there isn’t too high a price, therefore governments can spend what they like.
“So, the economic arguments don’t work,” he says. “And nor, really, do humanitarian ones. The arguments that will work are about solving problems. Finding solutions to public safety and reducing harm.”
Winford says he sees hope in Singapore’s Yellow Ribbon Project. Founded in 2004 by Singapore’s corrections agency, the project is a collaboration between government and business to employ former prisoners, and a broader mission to destigmatise ex-convicts. “That’s had a huge impact. There is something to be said about the community’s role, rather than putting it all on government.”
Dangerously overcrowded police cells, officers taken from regular duties, overburdened prisons that result in ratifying criminality rather than rehabilitating it, prisoners released unsupervised – these are some of the unseen consequences of publicly led justice reform during the past decade. “This is because it’s out of sight, out of mind,” Winford says, referring to prisons.
“But our prisons aren’t working, not when half of prisoners are heading straight back in. This means there’s a community responsibility here too. 99.5 per cent of prisoners are released, eventually. Prison isn’t a permanent solution. If we can’t help them reintegrate, or integrate, then that makes all of us less safe. If we stigmatise and prevent them from getting jobs, or settling into communities, we’re creating the conditions that give rise to reoffending. This is what I mean by community responsibility.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 1, 2019 as "A system in lockdown". Subscribe here.