19 May 2022

Wherefore art thou Romeo? The tragic tale of the $200,000 prison truck

| Lottie Twyford
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Alexander Maconochie Centre

Romeo was meant to transport detainees but never served its purpose, an ACT Legislative Assembly committee has determined. Photo: File.

The prison transport truck known as ‘Romeo 5’ should have its lease terminated after it cost taxpayers more than $200,000 and sat out of use for more than 200 days because it simply couldn’t be driven for purpose, an ACT Legislative Assembly committee has determined.

Romeo first arrived in the ACT in 2018 when the Mitsubishi truck was acquired by the ACT Government for $214,500.

That was later described by the ACT Auditor-General as a poor decision where a dozen red flags were ignored.

Those red flags, and the red flags which continued throughout Romeo’s short life, were detailed in a report tabled yesterday (18 May) by the Assembly’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts.

The committee has now recommended Romeo’s lease be terminated and that a new vehicle be commissioned that fits its purpose and meets the safety and security of correction officers and detainees.

READ ALSO Prison warned Camry not fit for transport two weeks before escape

Romeo was meant to carry eight detainees and two custodial officers. However, Romeo could only carry a maximum of two staff and up to four detainees. But in practice, prison officers said the truck’s limits were reduced even further to a maximum of three detainees.

Officers also did not like driving the vehicle, which lacked reverse cameras, as they felt it was “cumbersome” and there had been a “few near misses”.

Romeo was also too tall.

The vehicle’s height meant it couldn’t safely enter the detainee drop off area at the ACT Magistrates Court without hitting the roof. On one occasion, the vehicle struck the roof and repairs were required to the body.

The committee recommended all prison officers should receive adequate training, including on how to safely operate the vehicle.

In the end, Romeo was only used around 71 times between November 2018 and March 2020 to transport detainees. It also spent 227 days out of service for repairs and maintenance.

When later asked what he thought the future of Romeo should be, the ACT Auditor-General Michael Harris said “scrap metal”.

READ ALSO Prison’s ‘punitive culture’ of mistrust and danger revealed

In his report last year, Mr Harris concluded that appropriate procurement processes had not been followed when Romeo was bought.

The government had also ignored a dozen red flags, the Auditor-General told the committee at one hearing, including the fact no risk assessment was undertaken.

Mr Harris suggested a common-sense approach would have suggested a risk assessment was a good thing to do.

It was also revealed that ACT Corrective Services (ACTCS) had never sought alternative quotes or tested the market before purchasing Romeo. Instead, ACTCS had simply chosen the Byron Group as its preferred contractor.

The damning report also described it as a “fundamental failure” that ACTCS it did not have a contract with the Byron Group that adequately documented the vehicle’s specifications and requirements.

READ ALSO Overtime hours triple for prison guards as fresh concerns are raised about understaffing at AMC

It’s not the first time questions have been raised over the adequacy of vehicles used by the Justice and Community Safety Directorate.

Last year, Hollywood-like scenes ensued when a prisoner was transported from the AMC to Canberra Hospital in a Toyota Camry. That car was rammed by a Jeep and the prisoner escaped, although both were later found.

It was later found JACS had been told Camrys were unsuitable vehicles for transporting detainees two weeks before the incident.

In light of these issues, the committee’s report recommended that “a group of representative staff from the Court Transport Unit are involved in the procurement process and are able to test drive vehicles prior to their procurement”.

It also recommended that ACT Corrective Services communicate its specifications for vehicles selected for court transport “through feedback provided from a working group of representative staff”.

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Dear Lottie, do you mean ‘where’ is Romeo, or ‘why’ did the ACT government buy Romeo, because despite the unmissable opportunity to play on ‘Romeo’, I don’t think you know what ‘wherefore’ means?

How about those that made the wrong decisions pay for it? Instead of sheeting the cost back to the poor taxpayer. It seems to me that when a parliamentarian of any colour is caught acting illegally they simply pay back whatever is owed and everyone goes on their merry way. (Try doing that if you are simply poor and caught shoplifting something to eat.) It’s about time that highly paid decision makers are made to actually pay for their decisions – and not just at the ballot box. It’s far too easy to take many $100,000 per year in salary and then go “Oops, I made a mistake but now I’ll go on to another lucrative appointment”. Let’s start criminalising this behaviour. You don’t check the purchase/contract/cost – you go to court. Just like any other criminal.

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