A new committee will be 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 and inadequate accommodation for women prisoners.
The oversight committee will bring together representatives from the Human Rights Commission, the public sector union, the prison’s general manager and the Official Visitors program, as well as executives from the Justice and Community Safety (JACS) Directorate and an Indigenous delegate.
It will be overseen by an independent chair who will report back to the Minister.
The announcement came a fortnight after a review of the Court Transport Unit (CTU) by the ACT Inspector of Correctional Services found that officers in charge of transporting prisoners are not familiar with emergency management procedures and some officers have not completed mandatory training courses.
Corrections Minister Mick Gentleman – who took on the role from Shane Rattenbury after October’s election – said staff training was an urgent priority.
“It’s clear that recommendations from recent reports need to be advanced in a way that is supportive of staff and promotes a discussion around culture at AMC,” Mr Gentleman said.
“This will include an urgent focus on bringing training capabilities up to date and examining staffing levels and rostering to ensure staff development and wellbeing.
“I recognise the impact of staffing pressures on detainees and access to detainee services. We are working to implement immediate changes to address these challenges, including the recruitment of more corrections officers.”
Despite having enough full-time staff to manage the prison, there are not enough surplus staff for prison officers to attend training courses, Mr Gentleman said.
Officers have previously complained about rampant understaffing at the prison, with as many as 17 of 50 rostered guards being absent some days.
The high rate of absenteeism 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, one guard told Region Media.
Three officers have also sought care in mental hospitals this year due to job-related stress, Region Media was told.
Mr Gentleman said more recruitment would help ease staffing pressures, with 14 trainee prison officers graduating this month and another training intake set for March.
Further staff intakes may also be scheduled in August or September if necessary.
“We want to provide staff with a genuine way forward through a comprehensive process that builds consultation around management and implementation of policy and procedures,” Mr Gentleman said.
“Supporting corrections staff is a key priority for me and the ACT Government.”
Shadow Corrections Minister Elizabeth Kikkert said the committee was proof that Mr Gentleman was left to clean up Mr Rattenbury’s mess.
“Under Mr Rattenbury, the AMC was defined by deaths, escapes, record rates of assault, severe overcrowding, inappropriate accommodation of women, rampant drug abuse, staff shortages, and being the most expensive prison to run,” she said.
Ms Kikkert also reprimanded the Minister for leaving out a specific women’s advocate, given that the Healthy Prison Review found that female detainees “lack equality of opportunity to facilities, programs and services compared to the men”.
“I am disappointed this committee does not have an advocate for the delivery of correctional services for women, given the inappropriate accommodation of women detainees amongst the male detainees,” Ms Kikkert said.
“This is a missed opportunity. Mr Gentleman and his new committee have a long list of issues to fix.”
Mr Gentleman said women’s issues would be addressed by the delegations already in the committee, including the union and Human Rights Commission.