An inappropriate drawing of a ‘hangman game’ that referenced the name of a detainee found in the staff area of the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC) has forced ACT Corrective Services (ACTCS) to undergo significant reforms.
The drawing from 2018 was referred to the Human Rights Commission (HRC) after a detainee – who was not depicted in the drawing – made a complaint after overhearing a conversation between guards referring to the image.
The image was then handed over to the HRC, which shared a copy of it with the detainee; however, the detainee the image concerned has not been formally notified, Corrective Services Commissioner Jon Peach said.
“I do not want to cause further harm to any of the detainees by publishing that photograph or discussing that photograph with them,” he said, adding that another staff member had already notified AMC management, who removed the image.
The incident forced the general manager of the prison at that time to issue a message around appropriate behaviours. The case was subsequently settled in the ACT Administrative and Civil Tribunal last week.
*However, Naomi Gould, a solicitor from Canberra Community Law (CCL) who represented the Aboriginal complainant, said that the ACTCS statement does not provide an accurate description of the image, which they say was clearly racist in intent.
CCL said that the image on the whiteboard depicted an Aboriginal man hanging while a boat with the word ‘SERT’ sails past. The people on the boat appear to be celebrating. SERT often refers to a Special Emergency Response Team, however it is unclear if that is the intended meaning in this case.
“Too often stories involving Aboriginal people silence the voices of the Aboriginal victims directly affected. The statement from the Commissioner is yet one more example of that. The image is more than a game of hangman, It represents the persistent racism that plagues our systems.”
CCL says their client is pleased to have received a robust apology, but say that ACTCS have failed to produce evidence of their attempts to investigate this incident or to identify the individuals responsible for the image.
“These are the very people to whom our client and other Aboriginal detainees must turn to for mental health and other help”, they said.
Mr Peach said the actions of the one staff member had undermined the reputation of the whole ACTCS. “The vast majority of my staff are highly dedicated and professional. They work in a challenging environment and strive to both maintain community safety and improve the welfare of individuals within the corrective services system,” he said.
“However, a small number of staff do not display this same commitment or the level of professionalism, integrity, and respect for those in our care that the community should expect from our service.
“These people do not have a place in ACT Corrective Services.”
He reiterated there was no evidence that any other members of staff were involved. “The drawing was quite clearly done by one person, it was not done as a game, it was not done to the end of the game.”
ACTCS custodial officers are required to undertake training courses in cultural awareness, the role of the Indigenous Services Unit, diversity, suicide and self-harm, and human rights.
Staff members who cannot meet the basic expectations of decency and respect taught in these courses should rethink their careers, Mr Peach said.
“As a society, it is our duty to call out this behaviour when it happens and to convey our apology to those who are directly affected by the reckless actions of others,” he said.
“I acknowledge that this incident is particularly distressing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander detainees and for this I offer my sincere apology.”
Minister for Corrections and Justice Health Shane Rattenbury said he was equally disappointed with the incident.
“I am personally appalled by this incident. It is deeply regrettable and frankly offensive. I have expressed my view to Commissioner Peach that there is no place in ACTCS for these views or actions,” Mr Rattenbury said.
The drawing has led to ACTCS improving its practices to ensure that a similar incident will not happen again, Mr Peach said.
“ACT Corrective Services is currently undergoing significant reform to ensure that our operations are focused on maximising opportunities for offenders to positively change their lives,” he said.
“A fundamental element of this is the provision of a safe and secure environment where all people are treated with humanity.”
*Updated to include statement details from Canberra Community Law