Complaints about ACT Government agencies and ACT Policing increased by more than 10 per cent this year, according to new data from the Ombudsman.
The largest jumps in complaints were about the Chief Minister’s Directorate, and the Justice and Community Service (JACS) Directorate which oversees Canberra’s prisons. Both increased by 24 per cent in 2019-20 compared to the previous year, receiving 123 and 121 complaints respectively.
ACT Corrective Services (ACTCS) – which sits in the JACS Directorate – received the most complaints of any individual agency, totalling 117. It is a 70 per cent increase for the agency and they were all made about the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC).
There were also 70 complaints made against ACT Policing during the same time period.
The new data, released in the ACT Ombudsman’s annual report, sheds further light on a prison system plagued with problems.
A new committee is being set up to help address a range of challenges and gaps within Canberra’s prison after recent reports identified issues including a lack of staff training, vehicles with safety risks that were unfit for purpose, staff absenteeism and inadequate accommodation for women prisoners.
A guard has told Region Media that the high rate of absenteeism by prison officers stems from a feeling of powerlessness and frustration among guards who feel they are trying to tackle discipline within the prison with one hand tied behind their backs.
“If it goes too far and we are unable to unlock the yards, the prisoners start getting angry at us,” the guard said.
One prisoner also expressed his frustration with the lack of reporting mechanisms for human rights abuses within the prison, saying current conditions are contributing to psychological hardship, promoting the spread of disease and infection, and fostering animosity towards prison staff.
A JACS spokesperson said ACTCS was “not aware of any reasons for the increase in complaints” but that “a significant majority of complaints do not require investigation by the Ombudsman”.
“ACTCS has worked alongside oversight agencies to ensure that detainees have better access to information about the functions of oversight agencies, including the ACT Ombudsman, and external complaints processes,” the spokesperson said.
ACT Ombudsman Michael Manthorpe said that despite the challenges of COVID-19, the office was still able to handle more complaints from the public than had been received in recent years.
Oversight provided by the Ombudsman is more important than ever during a pandemic where a record number of Australians have become reliant on various forms of government services and support, Mr Manthorpe said.
“We have a role to play in ensuring that those services are delivered in a way that is fair, transparent and lawful,” he said.
A total of 520 complaints were received by the Ombudsman in 2019-20, an 11 per cent increase from the previous year.