At least one prison staff member wrote to Justice and Community Safety Directorate management two weeks before a prisoner escaped from a Toyota Camry in Manuka saying that the car was unfit to transport detainees, but was told the issue was not a priority.
The prisoner was being transported in a Toyota Camry from the AMC to the Canberra Hospital last Friday (9 July) when it was rammed by a Jeep. The prisoner escaped the scene with a woman in what resembled a scene from a Hollywood movie.
The officers were not armed at the time of the incident.
Shadow Corrections Minister Elizabeth Kikkert said it was “astounding” that ACT Corrective Services were still approving Camrys for transport duties despite corrections officers being “sitting ducks”.
“Why were these [officers] not armed with tasers or capsicum spray?” Mrs Kikkert asked.
“The Minister is putting our [officers] at further risk in what is already a dangerous job.”
She also questioned why Camrys were still being used despite a November 2020 report from the ACT Inspector of Correctional Services finding that the car was unsuitable for general use as an escort vehicle.
“The Inspector of Correctional Services told the ACT Government seven months ago that Camrys are not suitable for prison transport.”
In his report, Inspector Neil McAllister wrote: “A Toyota Camry is a mid-sized family car with a back seat that would be a tight squeeze for three average-size adults.
“It is unclear to us why an at-risk detainee could not be transported safely in a larger-seat capacity vehicle that would provide more room for the detainee and safe-distancing of staff.
“As the Camry is unsuitable as a general-use escort vehicle it may end up being underutilised and poor value for money.”
One officer said there was intelligence suggesting that the Camry was a likely escape risk.
Corrections Minister Mick Gentleman said he expects senior management at the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC) to listen to staff concerns, adding that progress is being made with regards to prison transport vehicles and Camrys will now only be used to transport detainees “in exceptional circumstances”.
“We continue to work with staff and the CPSU [Community and Public Sector Union] to ensure staff safety and wellbeing more broadly. This includes reviewing transport arrangements and the type of vehicles used.”
CPSU regional secretary Maddy Northan said issues raised by staff needed to be taken seriously.
“Staff are the ones who know what the safety risks are, they are the ones transporting the detainees,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Justice and Community Safety Directorate said the incident is being investigated by ACT Policing, ACT Corrective Services and the Inspector for Correctional Services.
“We are providing every support to the officers involved and their colleagues including access to the Peer Support Program and Employee Assistance Program,” the spokesperson said.
Region Media has been told that since Friday’s incident, prison staff passed a unanimous motion of no confidence in Deputy Commissioner Custodial Operations Corinne Justason.
Neither the Minister’s office nor the Directorate addressed questions about whether Ms Justason should continue in her role after she dismissed concerns about a vehicle that was not fit for purpose and subsequently involved in an escape.
The Directorate also did not answer whether there had been a security breach that allowed the driver of the Jeep to know when and where the transport vehicle would be or what the unarmed officers were supposed to do if the prisoner or those aiding his escape became violent or were armed.