7 April 2022

Prison's 'punitive culture' of mistrust and danger revealed

| Lottie Twyford
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Alexander Maconochie Centre

A scathing report has revealed a poor staff culture at the Alexander Maconochie Centre where corrections officers feel unsafe. Photo: File.

A “poor staff culture” in which corrections officers were punished for raising workplace issues and felt they were neither trusted nor cared for by management are among a raft of problems identified at the Alexander Maconochie Centre.

The report, A new future for custodial services, outlined six key findings and made 15 recommendations to the ACT Government.

Some of the recommendations, such as an urgent need to increase funding for 15 additional staff members, were already being implemented, Acting Corrections Commissioner Ray Johnson said today.

But others, such as changing prison culture, would take a long time.

Man in uniform

Acting Corrections Commissioner Ray Johnson said he disagreed with the assessment of the situation at AMC. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Commissioner Johnson said he did not agree with an assessment that the situation at the prison was “terrible” or “poor”; instead, he said the report should be seen as an “opportunity to make it better”.

This is despite the report finding that a “poor culture” did in fact exist and staff feel as though detainees are “favoured” over them.

“A constant topic of feedback received from staff was their collective perception of being undervalued and a lack of respect and concern for their wellbeing,” it read.

It went on to say there was a lack of communication, a lack of trust and a “punitive culture” where management blamed staff for issues during debriefing.

Staff said they felt management was disinterested in their concerns and that opportunities for engagement and feedback were lacking.

Commissioner Johnson would not confirm whether senior staff members currently in management roles would be dumped from their roles, but he did say that “there may be people who do not come along on the journey”.

“People will have an opportunity to be part of the new Corrective Services and hopefully everyone comes on board,” he said.

“Often, cultural problems are not about individuals but about systems and processes and a whole lot of other things.”

He understood only one person had been fired from their position at the prison in the last year.

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The report recommended the government demonstrate a commitment to staff and their safety by investing in uniforms that are actually fit for purpose, including being fire safe.

It also recommended that internet access be granted to Corrective Services staff to “promote a culture of trust”.

Commissioner Johnson noted some of these seemed like simple fixes, but they would make a big difference.

He said it was difficult to judge why these changes had not yet been made.

“It’s easy to look back and say what happened in the past … it’s time for us to refresh some of our training [so that] going forward we are in a better place to offer a better standard,” he said.

Commissioner Johnson said increased training and improved safety measures, such as the use of OC spray, were already being introduced.

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Improving security and therefore staff safety at the prison was recommended, as was banning smoking and examining issues of overcrowding.

Staff should also be able to access increased training, wellbeing and counselling services and rostering needed to be improved, the report found.

It further recommended that the government “recognise that detainees who have a persistent, inflammatory impact on the broader detainee population and are frequently causing conflict and unrest are beyond the management capacity of a single facility and that such detainees should be considered for relocation interstate”.

The report did highlight a “tentative thread of hope and investment in change”, which Commissioner Johnson said was evidence staff had not given up and were invested in seeing a difference.

Mick Gentleman

Minister for Corrective Services Mick Gentleman agreed to all the recommendations made by the report in principle. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

Minister for Corrective Services Mick Gentleman agreed to all of the report’s recommendations in principle.

Mr Gentleman survived a no-confidence motion in the Legislative Assembly in August last year after the Opposition attempted to have him removed from his position as corrections minister following repeated incidents at the prison, including a riot and an escape.

“I acknowledge that this will take time and commitment, as many of the issues raised are complex and systemic. I am committed to achieving long-term and meaningful change for ACT Corrective Services,” he said.

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FUBAR. This report found major problems with nearly every aspect of the AMC. Alexander Maconochie must be rolling in his grave, wishing his name would be removed from this facility.

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