Our response to COVID-19

Updated May 2020

Over the last 20 years we have maintained a high level of activity and interaction within places of detention. We have formal three yearly inspections as well as our strategy of ‘continuous inspection’ which provides up to date information through multiple liaison visits each year and off site monitoring. Our inspections team, independent visitors and community outreach activities rely on regular interaction with interest groups, departmental staff, and service providers, and physical presence in WA’s custodial facilities to ensure we are accessible to prisoners and detainees.

The emergence of COVID-19 and the official measures taken to combat its spread presents a challenge to our ‘normal’ way of doing business, including:

  • ensuring we ‘do not harm’ by having staff or volunteers carry the virus into custodial environments
  • maintaining a duty of care to our employees and volunteers
  • working within strict travel restrictions around WA which impact our access to many facilities in remote regional areas.

Despite these challenges, we are also acutely aware of the need for oversight at this critical time. Custodial environments are continually adjusting as staff strive to maintain a balance between service provision and preventing the spread of the virus into the vulnerable prison population. We are committed to providing effective oversight as these changes to the custodial environment evolve.

We are adapting quickly to these challenges. In the early stages of the pandemic, we chose to reduce our routine physical presence at custodial facilities. Instead we monitored facilities through:

  • receiving daily reports and briefings from the Department of Justice about each facility covering:
    • its health status
    • staffing levels and allocation
    • incident reports
    • any changes to regular daily routine
  • formal regular telephone briefings from the Superintendent or other senior leaders at each facility
  • formal regular telephone briefings from prison support workers, and other staff whose primary role is care and wellbeing of prisoners
  • daily monitoring of the department’s prisoner data base for each facility
  • contact with prisoners, their families and representative organisations.

Where appropriate we are now relaxing some of these measures and recommencing physical site visits, starting in the metropolitan prisons where we are not impacted by travel restrictions. Each visit is still carefully managed by working closely with all of our stakeholders to find the right balance between safety and oversight. Our measured approach and gradual return to a physical presence will allow us to identify any emerging problems. We can and will enter and physically inspect any facility if our monitoring activities show it is needed and the risks of going into a facility can be managed.

In addition, we are adapting our formal scheduled inspections. Since the commencement of COVID-19 restrictions, we undertook an inspection of a regional prison on a ‘remote’ basis. Much of the methodology of a formal inspection was still undertaken. Assessment of documents, surveys of staff and prisoners, interviews of community groups and contractors were all completed. Information from over a dozen monitoring and liaison visits to the facility in the past three years was also analysed. Staff conducted telephone interviews with prison staff and managers. We have commenced the process of drafting a report on the work we have been able to complete.

We have now moved onto an inspection of a metropolitan facility. Our on-site physical presence is not the same as our pre-COVID inspection, but we are visiting the facility. Small numbers of staff are going to the prison to conduct targeted observation exercises and talk to prisoners and staff. These activities have been staggered over two weeks. 

In addition, as of mid-May, we are working with our Independent Visitors to begin planning for a resumption of visits to their allocated prison. For some this will be very soon, while others may take longer. Our independent visitors are community volunteers and many asked initially to temporarily defer their upcoming visits. We needed to respect their situation and supported their decision to defer the visits. We will continue to work with our volunteers and the Department to make sure the return to normal visits is managed as quickly and carefully as possible. Our priority will always be to ensure the volunteers and prisoners are safe and feel safe.

Some of our staff were working remotely and this allowed us to easily maintain the recommended social distancing requirements in the office. Now almost all staff have returned to work in the office. We have practices in place to ensure that we are meeting the recommended social distancing requirements and staff have access to appropriate hygiene products.

Our overall approach has been to adopt a “do no harm” approach and at the same time maintain vigilance over places of detention.

Page last updated: 22 May 2020

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