A review of last year’s Hollywood-style escape of an Alexander Maconochie Centre detainee from a rammed prison vehicle has detailed a litany of procedural failures that created confusion on the day and made it harder for staff to respond.
While the ACT Corrective Services (ACTCS) could not have reasonably foreseen the short-lived escape, the review by the Inspector of Correctional Services found it had ignored prior concerns about the use of Camry sedans as secure transport vehicles, the security risk was underestimated, communications were scrambled and that the response to the incident was uncoordinated and ad hoc.
On the afternoon of 9 July, the handcuffed prisoner with a violent history was en route to Canberra Hospital after saying he had swallowed a battery. A Jeep with a bull bar rammed the Camry sedan several times as it approached the intersection of Mugga Lane and Hindmarsh Drive, and again as it made for AFP offices in Barton through back streets to minimise any danger to the public.
It came to a stop in Griffith where the Jeep rammed it again and forced the three unarmed escort officers to exit the vehicle. The prisoner broke free and jumped into the Jeep, driven by a woman he knew. She was accompanied by a female friend, despite screaming at his escort that “they are here to kill me”, “she is going to f–king kill me”, “she is going to shoot me” and “she is going to shoot us”.
The escape ended later in Lyneham where the prisoner was found in the roof cavity of a house and all three were arrested.
Suspicions had been aroused on the day when ACTCS, acting on ‘intelligence’, alerted hospital security to a bag containing contraband near the imaging department.
Recordings of phone conversations with the prisoner’s woman friend later revealed that an escape was being planned, including getting a car and asking if everything was ready. The woman said the chosen car was “the best one I could have picked”.
Nonetheless, the prisoner was transported even after being confronted with the contraband find, which he denied any knowledge of.
The review found fundamental problems with the AMC’s complicated risk assessment tool. One of the escort officers expressed strong concern that the team was not briefed on the serious, violent nature of the detainee’s criminal history in the context of what appeared to be a contrived visit to hospital in an unsecured vehicle.
AMC staff are also not trained specifically to conduct prisoner transports, and the review recommended that Corrections should be able to call on the Court Transport Unit for assistance.
A number of communications issues also hampered the AMC response.
When the Camry was being rammed, the escort officers had to use their own radios to alert the AMC because the vehicle radio did not work, confusing the Master Control Room, which called a Code Blue in sections of the prison rather than responding immediately.
It also generated “unnecessary and ill-disciplined radio traffic” within the AMC, making it difficult for the officer in charge to monitor the escape incident.
As the drama unfolded, some AMC staff even rang home to let loved ones know what was happening, resulting in the prison being swamped by calls from worried off-duty staff and members of the public, and distracting officers from focusing on the incident at hand.
About 10 officers attended the scene of the incident, all of whom arrived after police had secured the location. Some had come in private vehicles, and an officer from the Court Transport Unit had heard about the incident on their way home from work. Only five of the 10 responders were directed to attend.
“There is no clear guidance to AMC or CTU staff about how they should respond to an escape from an off-site escort. This may explain why the response to the escape of Detainee Z appears to have been somewhat ad hoc,” the review said.
The review found the three escort officers conducted themselves with absolute professionalism, and deserve to be commended, but would have benefited from better mental health support in the wake of the incident.
It said all three felt that the services provided by the Employee Assistance Program were generic rather than specific to the trauma they experienced. The review recommended the AMC provide specialised psychological support where warranted.
The review made eight recommendations across the choice of transport vehicles, risk assessment, a more secure communications system, better response training and clearer guidelines.
Opposition Corrections spokesperson Elizabeth Kikkert said the report contained multiple instances of communication confusion during the incident and extremely concerning claims that fitted radios in the AMC Camrys have never worked.
Even worse, the report made clear that previous concerns raised by the Inspector were unheeded by the ACT Government, she said.
“It is concerning when the ACT Government disagrees with the Inspector. It is greatly disturbing when the government chooses to disregard the Inspector’s concerns when his concerns are rooted in common sense,” Mrs Kikkert said.
“It should not even be a question that, outside of exceptional circumstances, detainees are transported in secure vehicles and not family sedans.”
Mrs Kickett said that last year she had called in the Assembly for a specialised trauma counsellor, which the government had supported.