22 February 2024

Five fires lit during 'dangerous' 2020 prison riot due to tensions over COVID-19 restrictions

| Albert McKnight
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fire damage to prison cell

A riot resulted in extensive damage to the Alexander Maconochie Centre on 10 November 2020. Photo: Supplied.

Tensions among inmates about the COVID-19 restrictions in Canberra’s jail eventually erupted into a damaging riot at the facility in 2020, which was estimated to have caused over $1 million worth of damage.

George George, 34, was sentenced to a total of three years’ jail over his role in the incident by the ACT Supreme Court on Thursday (22 February).

On 10 November 2020, rioters started five fires at the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC) and caused damage that cost around $1.6 million to repair – although the court heard this figure was unreliable.

While George, a serial criminal, once said he was “in charge” during the riot, he would later claim he joined in out of fear of being labelled a “snitch”.

Justice Louise Taylor said he had been at a unit in the facility on remand when there was growing discontent among the 27 detainees about the COVID-19 restrictions.

That evening, there had also been a perception of unequal treatment regarding cigarettes, while desserts hadn’t been handed out. When detainees refused to comply with their lock-in, the situation escalated into a riot at around 6 pm.

Detainees piled items together to create the fires. George damaged security cameras, added toilet paper and garbage to burning debris, broke up a table to make a barricade and tried to break into a cabinet that he thought contained an axe.

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Items like mattresses, washing machines and a fridge were added to the fires. The flames were extinguished when the ACT Fire and Rescue managed to get into the rooms around 11 pm and the unit had to be closed for repairs.

Justice Taylor said the extent of the damage to ACT Government property was significant, even though the estimated cost of repairs was unreliable.

She noted the riot began due to the restrictions of the time, which saw inmates further isolated from their families, but she said George’s reaction to these restrictions was “extreme and cannot be tolerated”, while she called his offending “immature, dangerous and ultimately senseless”.

aftermath of prison riot

The riot at the Alexander Maconochie Centre on 10 November 2020 began over tensions with COVID-19 restrictions. Photo: Supplied.

George pleaded guilty to charges of arson and damaging property, although he was not charged for two-and-a-half years.

Justice Taylor said there was no explanation for this delay as he had been quickly identified after the riot, calling it “unreasonable and unwarranted”. The delay gave the appearance the authorities were “sitting on their hands”, she said.

She also said George’s assertion he was “in charge” during the riot demonstrated a level of enthusiasm for his conduct. She was satisfied he was directly involved in at least two of the fires while he had maintained others.

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The judge said the father-of-four has an extensive criminal history and now worked as a sweeper at the AMC.

He has a borderline cognitive impairment, finished schooling in Year 7, started using drugs and alcohol when he was 13 and experienced a childhood “riddled with dysfunction”, the judge said.

He has completed aggression and addiction programs at the AMC and wanted to return to work as a labourer.

While George has already been serving an unrelated jail sentence, the effect of his sentence over the riot is that he was handed an extra 12 months in jail. He can apply for parole from December 2024.

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