A review of the ACT prison’s first hostage-taking incident earlier this year has recommended negotiation training for officers, scope for them to seek medical advice about a detainee, finding ways to improve communication between frontline staff and incident controllers and having a specific policy on the use of chemical agents such as pepper spray.
The Office of the ACT Inspector of Correctional Services’ review of the 27 March incident at the Alexander Maconochie Centre in which a detainee had been taken hostage by another detainee, was tabled in the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday.
While it found that the incident was defused within 90 minutes and no one was harmed, the review said that the situation highlighted a number of issues for prison staff and management.
The ACT Inspector of Correctional Services, Neil McAllister, said that Corrective Services did not have trained hostage negotiators and it would be hard to justify the expense considering the rarity of incidents, but officers needed more skills to deal with such situations.
“The senior CO who communicated to the detainee during the incident did an excellent job, partly at least because he knew the detainee well and was able to establish a rapport with him quite quickly,” Mr McAllister said.
“However, if the incident had gone on for hours or longer, that CO would have been relieved by someone who may not have had the same connection with the detainee.”
The detainee was an Indigenous man on medication for a mental health condition and during the standoff he had asked for his meds, only to be refused by the incident controller based on the principle that any demands should not be met.
“However, no advice was sought from Justice Health/Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service on medical considerations,” the report said.
“While the principle of not acceding to hostage taker demands is understandable, the review team are concerned about the issue of medication for the victim or perpetrator in a hostage incident spanning several hours or even days.”
It said that if in doubt, health advice should take precedence over the general principle of not acceding to a hostage-taker’s demands.
Debriefing also found that there were communication problems between the staff on the scene and the incident controller, with messages being passed orally via
one or more officers.
The report recommended that ACT Corrective Services explore ways of improving communications between frontline staff and incident controllers during serious incidents.
The deployment of an officer trained in the use of pepper spray, which did not have to be used, also raised the issue that Corrective Services does not have a notified policy or procedure specific to the use of chemical agents.
“Given the potential effects of OC on detainees and unprotected staff, there must be very clear policy around their use and clear and detailed procedures for decontaminating people, clothing and premises exposed to the agent,” Mr McAllister said.
“This is not currently the case at AMC.”
Corrections Minister Mick Gentleman said the Chemical Agent Policy had been finalised by ACT Corrective Services and would be notified in the coming weeks.
The hostage taker possessed improvised bladed weapons but these were not photographed by AMC staff before being handed over to police, which meant information about materials and techniques used to make them could not be provided to the ACTCS Intelligence and Integrity Unit.
“Reviewing ‘self-manufactured’ weapons seized from detainees is an important area of work for corrective services’ intelligence units as it can provide valuable information about the sources of weapons and, in some cases, the maker of the weapons,” the report said.
It recommended key exhibits from incidents be photographed and catalogued before being handed over to police, or obtained from police before they are disposed of.
Other management issues raised included a lack of clear direction about when a victim’s family must be notified.
Mr Gentleman praised the officer involved in the successful negotiation saying he displayed the skills required in a challenging work environment.
He said the ACT Government would soon table a formal response to the findings and recommendations in the report.