While Melaleuca had faced some very significant issues in its early operation, the prison had started to improve. Major concerns remained however, and because of this we made 25 recommendations. For comparison, over the last three years the average number of recommendations per inspection has only been 15.
To some extent the number of issues reflects the rush by the Department of Justice to open Melaleuca, and its abandonment of the previous robust, yet cautious approach adopted to contracting prison services. The mere four-month period between the signing of the contract in July 2016 and the commencement of operations in December was a high-risk strategy; particularly for a new site, a new concept, and a new contractor (one not only new to the State, but to Australia).
That risk may have been exacerbated by the contractual price. In 2016–2017, Melaleuca made a significant operating loss. This loss included costs associated with mobilisation and operation of the facility in the first year. However, Sodexo forecasts a further increase to that operating loss in its second financial year of operating the facility.
Unfortunately, this loss directly impacts on the operation of the facility. This is reflected in lean staffing levels, and a lack of adequate services for prisoners. It also means that Sodexo has limited capacity to add to the existing infrastructure.
The above problems were made worse by the poor coordination with other prisons and services (in particular Bandyup Women’s Prison) that were left to be negotiated on the go. This has serious ongoing implications, and resulted in a recommendation to develop clear guidelines for the transfer of prisoners from Melaleuca to Bandyup (Recommendation 23).
The Department indicated that it and Sodexo were currently finalising several protocols, regarding the transfer of prisoners for mental health, dental, pregnancy, punishment, and other routine needs. However, the fact that these agreements were still not in place almost 18 months after Melaleuca had first opened is unacceptable.
Despite its failings, Melaleuca’s opening has significantly improved aspects of the situation for women prisoners. If Melaleuca had not commenced operations Bandyup, with a design capacity of 209 at 30 June 2016 (OICS, 2016a, p. 6), would now be holding more than 500 prisoners.
The enthusiasm and passion Melaleuca’s custodial staff showed for working with the women, and the positive and respectful interactions observed during the inspection between staff and prisoners, is also a welcome addition to the custodial estate in Western Australia.