Custodial environment pressures

The rise in the prison population has stabilised but overcrowding issues remain

The rapid rise in the prison population experienced over the last few years appears to have stabilised. There was virtually no increase in the population this year. As at 30 June 2018 there were 6868 prisoners in adult custodial facilities. As at 30 June 2019 that figure had risen to 6940. This is an increase of 72 prisoners or around a 1 per cent increase. The small increase is in line with normal fluctuations in the prison population.

There has been a decrease in our youth prison population. As at 30 June 2018 there were 156 children and young people in detention compared with 123 at 30 June 2019. This is a reduction of 21 per cent and appears to be attributable to a reduction in the number of young people on remand.

Despite the stabilisation of the adult prison population, prisons still remain overcrowded as they have for several years. It is also likely that the population can be expected to rise again. Western Australia reports on prison utilisation in the Report on Government Services (Productivity Commission, 2019). This is the extent to which design capacity of prisons meets the demand for prisoner accommodation. Essentially, it compares the number of prisoners against the number the prison was designed to hold. It includes the original design capacity of the prison and any additional accommodation. Prisons require more beds than prisoners to cater for the transfer of prisoners, special purpose accommodation such as protection units, separate facilities for males and females and different security levels, and to manage short‑term fluctuations in prisoner numbers. Therefore, percentages close to but not exceeding 100 per cent are desirable. According to the 2019 Report on Government Services, Western Australia is operating at 124 percent.

But the problem of crowded prisons is not just about finding beds. There are also implications for supporting infrastructure and services. For example, in this year’s Hakea inspection, we highlighted some effects of overcrowding. The Hakea kitchen was too small, prisoners were waiting too long for medical appointments, the telephone booking system was jammed, and there were not enough visit times for remand prisoners.

The effects of overcrowding have also been compounded by the imposition of adaptive regimes. This involves limiting activities based on staffing resources. The result is prisoners spend less time in activities such as education, programs and recreation, and more time locked in cells or behind grilles. Adaptive regimes continued to a problem this year.

The State has invested in increasing bed capacity recently. Construction is well underway for a 512 bed expansion in Casuarina Prison and a further 160 beds at Bunbury Regional Prison. This follows a recent 212 bed increase in the male estate across six facilities. The additional capacity should provide some welcome relief for the overcrowded facilities across the state. However, increased numbers, particularly in Casuarina, must also come with increased services and facilities for prisoners to assist in their rehabilitation and keep them occupied in meaningful activities.

Infrastructure is ageing, and often not fit for purpose

In addition to the pressures of the increasing population, prison infrastructure in Western Australia is ageing, and in some cases, is no longer fit for purpose. This has been raised in several reports in recent years, and this year was no exception.

In Albany, we found many of the buildings had not been scaled up to meet the increase in prisoners and cells in Unit 1 A and B wings were too small to hold prisoners in humane conditions. We recommended that Unit 1 needs to be rebuilt. Significant investment was also required in most service areas including the kitchen, laundry, reception, medical centres and industries.

Similar findings came from the Hakea inspection. Prisoners were eating in their cells due to a lack of space in the day rooms, encouraging poor hygiene. Almost every cell in Hakea houses two prisoners. All are small and many do not meet national or international standards for one prisoner let alone two. Cell mates must negotiate the use of floor space, chairs, bunk allocation, television, radio, lights and toilet. The lack of personal space and privacy compromises dignity and safety.

Opportunities for rehabilitation are diminishing

Western Australia, like the rest of the nation, has high recidivism rates. In 2016-17, 45 per cent of prisoners had returned to corrective services within two years of their prison release (Productivity Commission, 2019). That means almost every second person is reoffending in some way once they leave prison. The figures are worse for young people and Aboriginal people. High recidivism places enormous pressure on the prison system by increasing prisoner numbers and contributing significantly to overcrowding. It is an indicator of an ineffective and inefficient criminal justice system, which is failing to change people’s criminal behaviour.

One of the ways to reduce recidivism is to provide effective treatment programs to prisoners while in custody. However, this year programs have been cancelled, not because prisoners did not need them, but simply because people had not been assessed and therefore assigned to the programs.

Assessments determine a person’s security rating, their education and treatment needs and their optimal prison placement. They are expected to be conducted within 28 days of a person being sentenced. Hakea prison is the main assessments prison for male prisoners but has fallen way behind. As of 31 June 2019, 696 treatment assessments were overdue. There were also 1023 prisoners who were still waiting on an initial Individual Management Plan after 28 days. The reason for the backlog includes a change in the assessments tool which added to its complexity, and under-resourcing of the Hakea assessments team which did assessments for men in all metropolitan prisons.

This is not a new problem. During our inspection of Hakea in 2015, we highlighted that Hakea was falling behind in assessments. We also drew attention to the problem in the inspection of Casuarina prison in 2016, given people were being dispersed to other prisons before Hakea had been able to complete the prisoner’s assessment. In this year’s inspection of Hakea, we again highlighted the problem, noting that it had continued to escalate.

We have been assured the Department is employing additional staff to provide support to address the backlog, but are concerned it will be some time before the problem is fully resolved. Further, the Department has made arrangements with Serco for them to do assessments at Acacia. Hopefully this will enable prisoners to have their needs assessed in a timely manner and to have access to treatment programs and other services.

Mental health services for prisoners are spread too thin

Several of our inspection and review reports this year highlighted the widening disparity between mental health needs of prisoners and the services provided in custody. In general, prisoners have high mental health needs. It is in the community’s best interest that they access treatment to improve their mental health so they are less likely to reoffend on release. It is also necessary for the stability of the prison, as people with untreated mental health issues can often be disruptive and difficult to manage.

Our report into prisoner access to the state’s one secure mental health facility, the Frankland Centre, showed that prisoner mental health care is falling well short of community standards. Prisoners who had been referred to Frankland, simply were not making it due to the lack of beds. This places pressure on the already stretched prison mental health staff. Their focus is directed to dealing with the immediate needs of the acutely unwell, leaving less capacity to support others with mental health conditions.

The Prison Counselling Services are struggling to meet demand. Counsellors can make a significant contribution to prisoner mental health and wellbeing but the demands over recent years has meant the counsellors are focussed more on managing prisoners at risk of self-harm or suicide and less on regular ongoing counselling.

Our concerns about the gaps in services for prisoner’s mental health were echoed in May 2019, when the Coroner released his findings from an inquest into five suicides at Casuarina Prison. His first recommendation was for the Department to recruit additional Prison Counselling Service and mental health staff for Casuarina and more broadly, to consider the appropriate levels for the Prison Counselling Service and mental health for prisons across the state. The Coroner reported “medical and custodial staff said the current situation with Prison Counselling Services and mental health staff numbers is placing prisoner’s lives at risk” (Jenkin, 2019).

Future contracted services require clarity and preparation

Western Australia has two prisons run by private contractors, Acacia prison and Melaleuca Remand and Reintegration Facility.

Acacia has been operating under a long term custodial contract, run by Serco Australia since 2006. This arrangement has generally delivered a good service with a robust accountability framework. However, the contract cannot be renewed beyond 2021. The government’s intentions beyond May 2021 in regard to the operation and management of Acacia are unknown at this time. There are a range of possible options but these are questions for the government and not this office.

Despite the potential for uncertainty from now until 2021, Serco and the Department must maintain Acacia’s positive record and ensure that services do not decline.

Melaleuca commenced operation on 15 December 2016. Melaleuca took the pressure off Bandyup Women’s Prison. This pressure has since been further reduced by the repurposing of Wandoo Reintegration Facility to a women’s rehabilitation facility in May 2018.

The five year milestone for the Melaleuca contract occurs in 2021, early decisions will be needed about the future of the facility to ensure continuity of services for the women who are sent there.

OICS Pressures

Budget constraints and workload increases continue 

As we stated last year, our funding has declined relative to spending by the services we oversee. In other words, we are actually doing more with less. These pressures have continued, and have been compounded this year by our office completing three unplanned reviews.

  • Finalising and publishing the directed review into the Amnesty International Australia allegations of mistreatment of young people at Banksia Hill.
  • Reviewing the birth at Bandyup Women’s Prison in March 2018.
  • Conducting a review of prisoner access to secure mental health treatment, which was initiated after the poor transfer of two women from Bandyup to the Frankland Centre.

In addition, we conducted an extra inspection of Greenough Regional Prison, to assess the management of prisoners following the riot in July 2018. The report from this inspection will be released next financial year, but it has required significant resources this year to conduct the fieldwork and drafting.

It is essential our office is able to respond to emerging risks and issues. We have been taking on the additional work and doing our best to manage within our allocated budget. However, this is unsustainable in the longer term. As stated last year, in future we may:

  • be unable to inspect prisons with the same rigour and depth
  • have a reduced on-site presence
  • be unable to review some high risk services
  • not have the capacity to bring forward inspections and reviews to meet Parliament and government expectations.

OICS is well placed to support OPCAT

In December 2017, the Federal Government ratified the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT). OPCAT requires all states and territories, and the Commonwealth, to implement systems of independent oversight for all closed places. These include prisons, youth detention centres, secure mental health facilities, and places of police custody.

We continue to engage in discussions about how this will be rolled out in Western Australia as, given our role, it is likely OPCAT will have a significant impact on this Office.

Page last updated: 20 Nov 2019

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