Our Environment: Custodial and Office Pressures

COVID-19 has presented unique challenges

The arrival of the COVID-19 virus presented us with some unique challenges in being able to meet our statutory inspection obligations, while at the same time ensuring the safety of our staff, volunteers, and prison and detention centre staff and prisoners. 

The virus was first confirmed in Australia in late January 2020 and in Western Australia (WA) on 21 February 2020. By 10 March there were a small number of cases in WA. To reduce the risk of the virus entering prisons, the Department of Justice (the Department) actively encouraged prisoners to improve hygiene practices and visitors were verbally screened when entering a prison. On 16 March, the Premier announced a State of Emergency with limits on the size of gatherings. By 23 March, as the numbers of infected people in WA rose, the Department cancelled all social visits to prisons. This was in line with health advice on social distancing and in line with actions being taken across Australia. To compensate for the loss of visits, the Department offered additional mail and free phone calls for prisoners to contact families, and commenced a staged implementation of video call systems in all facilities.

We were acutely aware of the need for oversight while the situation and response was rapidly evolving in correctional facilities. There was enormous uncertainty around the situation and how it may evolve in WA. As official visitors with a statutory right of entry, we were never prevented from visiting prisons and other places of custody. However, we had to ensure that we addressed the potential risk that staff and volunteers could carry the virus into the custodial environment. We knew that prisoners and detainees represent some of the most vulnerable people in society and the impact of COVID-19 entering a closed custodial facility could have been catastrophic. As time went on we also had to navigate strict travel restrictions around WA which impacted our access to many facilities in remote regional areas.

To avoid exposing the prisons to additional risk we chose to reduce our routine physical presence at custodial facilities and we adjusted our method for inspections. The first inspection during the pandemic was of a regional prison which we undertook remotely using phone contact, video conferencing, surveys of prisoners and previous liaison visits to determine our findings. The second inspection was of a metropolitan facility which took place as COVID restrictions were beginning to ease. We could physically attend this inspection, however at a reduced capacity. Small numbers of staff went to the prison to conduct targeted observation exercises and talk to prisoners and staff. These activities were staggered over a two-week timeframe to ensure fewer staff were in the prison on any given day.

By June  2020 we had mostly returned to operating as we did prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. We had largely recommenced liaison visits, full inspections and reviews. Visits by our volunteer independent visitors, who initially elected to temporarily defer their visits, had mostly resumed. However, there were still barriers in place such as the disruption to regional travel, the ongoing social distancing requirements, and the need to be constantly vigilant in relation to COVID-19. This has reinforced the need to conduct a risk assessment prior to each visit to a prison or the detention centre. 

Prison population has decreased slightly as new infrastructure becomes available 

The prison population has decreased slightly this year following a very small (1%) increase in 2018/2019. On 30 June 2019, there were 6,940 prisoners in adult custodial facilities, by 30 June 2020 that figure had dropped to 6,771, a decrease of 2.5 per cent.

There has also been a decrease in the youth population at the Banksia Hill Detention Centre. On 30 June 2019, there were 123 children and young people in detention compared with 106 at 30 June 2020. This is a reduction of 14 per cent. On average, there were just over 100 young people in custody each day during this financial year. This is a significant reduction from previous years. The cohort is still very complex, holding both boys and girls, sentenced and unsentenced, from all regions, ranging in age from 10 to 18 years.

Despite the stabilisation of the adult prison population, many prisons remain overcrowded. Western Australia reports on prison utilisation in the Report on Government Services (Productivity Commission, 2020). This is the extent to which design capacity of prisons meets the demand for prisoner accommodation. It compares the number of prisoners against the number the prison was designed to hold, along with any additional accommodation that has been added. 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 127 per cent capacity.

In October 2019, a new unit with 160 beds was officially opened at Bunbury Regional Prison. In addition, the first stage of the Casuarina expansion is due to be completed in 2020. This will increase the prison’s capacity by 512 beds. The second stage expansion project is planned for completion in 2023 and will include an additional 344 beds mostly in specialist units. When complete, Casuarina’s capacity will be close to 1,900 prisoners, making it one of the largest prisons in Australia.

While the additional beds have provided welcome relief, the problem of crowded prisons is not just about finding beds. There are also implications for supporting infrastructure and services. We noted in the inspection of Casuarina this year that the expansion will place significant pressure on the prison and impact its capacity to provide a meaningful and constructive daily regime for a very large and complex cohort of prisoners. This is an issue we have raised in many inspection reports over the years.

Aging infrastructure is often not fit for purpose

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

In our inspection of Broome Regional Prison, we again found that its infrastructure is no longer fit for purpose as it has been for many years. It is the oldest operating prison in Western Australia and was marked for closure in 2012.  In 2019, the Minister announced planning would be undertaken for a new prison in Broome. Some minor infrastructure improvements have been made or are planned, but the facility still has considerable infrastructure limitations resulting from years of uncertainty.

The announced funding for the planning of a new prison means that any large-scale infrastructure changes for the current prison are unlikely to be approved. Logically, only maintenance will be funded into the future which raises concerns about the ongoing condition of the prison. It is likely to be several years before the new prison opens, but in the interim Broome must maintain a humane and liveable standard.

The Casuarina inspection also found problems relating to the ageing infrastructure, which has been stretched due to years of overcrowding. Two units were added in 2012 and further new units are expected to be completed this year. Some infrastructure needs, such as the kitchen, health centre, and visits centre, will be addressed by the current expansion project. Other areas will remain unchanged, and problems are likely to be exacerbated by the increase in prisoner numbers. We noted that the condition of the older units was deteriorating, accelerated by the fact that the number of prisoners in each unit has doubled. Carpets in unit day rooms needed to be replaced, cleaning efforts were no longer effective against ingrained dirt and grime. Cockroach infestation has been an ongoing problem, and the prison has struggled to meet a reasonable standard of decent living conditions.

The rise in overdue assessments has stopped but the backlog remains

One of the strategies to reducing recidivism is to provide effective treatment programs to prisoners while in custody. This requires a process of assessment of an individual’s needs Assessments determine a person’s security rating, their education and treatment needs and their optimal prison placement. The Department has a structured process to undertake these assessments which leads to the production of an individual management plan for the prisoner. This process can vary depending on the effective length of a prisoner’s sentence.

We have been concerned about backlogs in assessments and individual management plans for some time, and since January 2019 have been receiving monthly progress reports. The Department has devoted additional staff resources across the system into addressing the problem and has had some success. In July 2019, the number of outstanding treatment assessments and IMPs peaked. Since then the number of outstanding assessments has reduced by 46 per cent and the number of outstanding IMPs has reduced by 37 per cent. However, as shown in the table below, in June 2020, there were still 381 prisoners with outstanding assessments and 1107 with outstanding IMPs.

  July 2019 June 2020 % Difference
Outstanding/overdue treatment assessments 710 381 -46%
Outstanding individual management plans 1,758 1,107 -37%

This data suggests that it if the Department continues to provide extra resources, it could take another year to fully address the backlog. There is a requirement to provide specialist training for these staff before they are fully functioning. Unfortunately, the additional staff resources have been procured on short term contacts, with continual extensions, so continuing this downward trend will be dependent on resource availability.

Overdue assessments have had a flow on effect on program delivery. This year we found that there were a number of treatment programs that had been cancelled, postponed or relocated. While there were a number of factors that influenced whether the programs ran, one of the issues has been the difficulty in identifying suitable program candidates because of the state-wide backlog of assessments. This meant the scale of program needs across the system was unpredictable because of the number of prisoners who had not been assessed. Our concern is that prisoners are missing out on programs that they need, including hundreds who have not even had their program needs assessed. Lack of access to complete programs prevents many prisoners from being released on parole, which in turn contributes to the overcrowding of the prison system. It also arguably impacts on community safety because of the failure to address offending behaviour. 

Prisoner unemployment and underemployments remain high

Experience shows that the most effective custodial facilities are those that offer a busy and constructive day. Putting prisoners to work in meaningful roles and providing training and new skills has repeatedly shown that it can change lives and reduce recidivism rates.

However, we continue to identify, via our inspection work, the lack of meaningful employment in many prisons. It is fair to say that employment opportunities have not kept pace with the rapid increase in the prisoner population in recent years. Prison industries in the main have not been expanded beyond essential areas such as kitchens, laundries, and bakeries. This often results in an increase in the number of under employed workers in prisons, usually unit workers who have jobs requiring only an hour or two of work each day. These types of roles cannot be considered meaningful employment. This combined with prisoners who are unemployed means that there are many prisoners who are not actively engaged in constructive activities.

There are a number of exceptions to this, notably in smaller or specialist prisons, prison farms and workcamps.

In our Casuarina inspection, we noted that around 55 per cent of the prisoner population was not involved in meaningful activities. In our other inspections, we have regularly found that at least one third of prisoners were not engaged in any meaningful activity.

This can be further compounded when staff shortages occur. Often Vocational and Support Officers (VSOs) who run industries and workshops are redeployed into other roles to cover staff absences from rostered work. When they are redeployed their workshop is closed for the day and the workers stay in the units. This year we found this was happening on a regular basis.

Mental health services for prisoners continue to be spread too thin

Inadequate mental health services and support for prisoners continues to be an issue identified in our inspections. Several inspection reports this year highlighted that mental health care is largely reactionary and crisis focussed. Prison mental health and counselling services, despite the best efforts of staff, often have little capacity for anything beyond acute crisis counselling. Those suffering from ongoing or historical mental health issues such as people dealing with trauma or past abuse, could often not access adequate support.

Access for prisoners to acute mental health care in a hospital setting continues to fall well short of reasonable standards. We released a review report in November 2018 which showed that prisoners who were referred to the state’s only forensic mental health facility, the Frankland Centre, were not making it due to the lack of beds. This situation continues. In June 2020, half of the prisoners referred by prison health staff to the Frankland Centre were not admitted. There is a broad acknowledgment of the existence of this problem, but addressing it has been difficult and progress slow.

The Inspector has actively engaged with key stakeholders to maintain focus on this issue throughout the year. He facilitated meetings, and had several follow up conversations, with heads of health, mental health and justice agencies to discuss long-term and short-term strategies to address the problem. Planning has begun for some long-term strategies, such as a step-up-step-down mental health unit at Casuarina. But short term strategies to release the immediate pressure on the Frankland Centre and provide acute care options for prisoners are still desperately needed.

In general, prisoners have high mental health needs. It is in the community’s best interest that they access appropriate treatment to improve their mental health and wellbeing and reduce the risk of self-harm. At the very least they may be 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, difficult to manage and present high risks.

On a positive note, as part of the Casuarina expansion project scheduled to be completed in 2023, plans have been announced to include a unit catering for priority one mental health cases, aged care and special needs prisoners.

The alcohol and drug strategy for women is showing success 

This year, we conducted our first inspection of the repurposed Wandoo Rehabilitation Prison. This facility became a dedicated drug and alcohol rehabilitation prison for women in May 2018 and we conducted our inspection in November 2019. We found that the therapeutic community model had been successfully adapted into a prison environment. Women were treated respectfully and empowered towards change. The prison was showing great promise.

The Department is introducing a rehabilitation program for men at Casuarina. Although the model may differ from Wandoo because it will be located within the grounds of a maximum-security prison, we look forward to similar outcomes being achieved when it commences operation towards the end of 2020.

Only one private prison remaining in WA

On 23 December 2019, the Minister announced that agreement had been reached for an early termination of the contract with the private operator of the then Melaleuca Remand and Reintegration Facility The contract was originally due to finish in 2021. The facility was transferred back to public management and was renamed the Melaleuca Women’s Prison on 4 April 2020.

Generally, the transition appeared to go smoothly, but there were some delays in updating key operational documentation. When we raised these concerns with the Department, additional resources were being directed to improve the situation. We are scheduled to conduct our regular inspection of this facility in November 2020.

Acacia Prison is now the only privately operated facility in WA. Acacia has been operating under a long-term contract with Serco Australia since 2006. This arrangement has generally delivered a good service with a robust accountability framework. However, the contract cannot be extended beyond 2021. On 23 December 2019, the Minister announced the intention to continue private management of Acacia. A tender process for the management of the prison commenced in the first half of 2020.

The disruptive prisoner order was a concern 

In July 2019, the Department introduced a Prisons Order specifically for disruptive prisoners. This was aimed at prisoners who displayed violent behaviour, or had the ability to negatively influence other prisoners. The order prescribed a three-tiered management regime, the most severe of which could result in a prisoner being held under a confinement regime for up to 60 days without review.

While there were governance arrangements set out in the order, we were concerned that it appeared to bypass the legislative framework. Section 43 of the Prisons Act 1981 (the Prisons Act) provides for prisoners to be placed on separate confinement without charge. The section 43 confinement order cannot exceed 30 days and must be reported to the Minister. In contrast, a Level 3 disruptive prisoner regime was to be reviewed after 60 days and there was no reporting requirement.

During our inspection of Casuarina, we were concerned that the new order created a regime similar to separate confinement that may not comply with the Prisons Act. We highlighted that ignoring legislative requirements created a risk of prisoner mistreatment, and exposed the Department to potential legal challenge. We raised our concerns with the Department at the time of our inspection and were advised that the matter was under review.

OICS Pressures

Budget constraints impacted services

As we have reported in previous years, budget constraints continued to have an impact on what we do and how we do it. We, like many other public sector agencies, are facing difficult resource challenges. We have tried to maintain the extent of our work coverage within our allocated resources, but this has been difficult.

Although we have continued to meet our statutory inspection mandate, we have not been able to undertake as many reviews as we have in previous years. This year we published only one review report as a result of focussing our resources towards meeting our mandatory inspection requirements. Similarly, we have not been able to undertake as many liaison visits as in previous years. Both factors have had an impact on our key performance indicators. 

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 Australia to establish a National Preventative Mechanism (NPM), which will require a network of designated NPMs for each state and territory. We have been nominated as one of the two NPMs for Western Australia. We continue to engage in discussions at both the state and national level about how this will be rolled out in Western Australia. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the progression of these discussions.

In March and April of this year, the United Nations Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT) was scheduled to visit Australia, including Western Australia. That visit was cancelled due to the onset of COVID-19. 

Page last updated: 24 Dec 2020

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