A complex prisoner group and a COVID-19 outbreak presented challenges

Casuarina continued to house many of the state’s most difficult-to-manage prisoners. It was increasingly challenging to manage risks and identify safe placements for all prisoners. The proportion of Aboriginal men in the prison had grown to 43%, and 53% of the total population were on remand.

Casuarina experienced a COVID-19 outbreak in April-May 2022 with cases peaking at around 250 prisoners and 55 staff unavailable to work because they had either tested positive or were close contacts. Ultimately, the outbreak was brought under control and serious adverse health outcomes were avoided.

Casuarina lacked strategic direction and faced instability in senior management

Casuarina had continued to expand, and prisoner numbers had increased significantly. More new functions were expected with the ongoing expansion works, including a high security unit, a forensic mental health unit and a high dependency unit. With so many different (and not always compatible) functions, it was increasingly difficult to identify a clear purpose and philosophy for the prison.

Most of the senior management team were only acting in their roles, particularly on the operational side of the team. Importantly, however, Casuarina benefited from a substantive Superintendent who was experienced and highly respected by his team.

Custodial staff absences were impacting prison operations and morale was low

Casuarina experienced significant shortages of custodial staff on a regular basis. There was an average of 20 custodial staff on personal leave and 58 on workers’ compensation leave each day. This was an extraordinary level of absence that impacted on almost all aspects of prison operations and services.

Short staffing was cited by prison officers as one of the main reasons for low morale. Other reasons included lack of communication from senior management particularly in relation to the expansion program, the extent of change occurring in the prison, the impact of COVID-19, and the tightening up of their conditions of employment.

The orientation process had been disrupted and legal resources were limited

From around December 2021, custodial staffing shortages and redeployment of staff meant that new prisoners were not receiving and orientation to the prison. The backlog reached a peak of around 500 in August 2022 but had been reduced to around 200 by the time of our inspection.

We were concerned that the library and particularly the legal resources failed to meet the needs of a prison population of over 1,100 (and rising). Poor access to limited resources meant it was increasingly unrealistic for any prisoner to effectively prepare for their defence or appeal while at Casuarina. This was a particular concern given the increased proportion of remand prisoners.

There was a backlog of disciplinary charges and use of force reviews

Casuarina had very limited punishment cell capacity. The prison prosecutor could not present disciplinary charges to the Superintendent or a visiting justice if there were no punishment cells available. The result was a backlog of more than 300 charges, dating back more than 18 months to February 2021.

Use of force incidents had increased but there had been no local use of force committee meetings for over a year. There was a backlog of more than 100 use of force incidents that had not been reviewed for compliance.

Special management and protection cohorts were complex but managed well

Use of confinement and management regimes at Casuarina appeared to be applied fairly and prisoners were treated with respect and dignity. The Special Handling Unit managed a complex mix of prisoners, but management worked well with staff to find ways to better balance the risks and needs of the cohort.

A multitude of factors were complicating the placement of protection prisoners. As a result, protection prisoners were dispersed across many as eight different units. Casuarina had done well to manage the various risks without compromising prisoner safety.

The daily routine was restricted and living conditions in older units were poor

Casuarina had been unable to run a normal daily routine for months because of chronic staff shortages. As a result, prisoners had far fewer opportunities to engage in meaningful activity such as recreation, education or employment.

The condition of the older units at Casuarina was deteriorating, accelerated by the fact that the number of prisoners in each unit had doubled. Communal showers were grimy and mouldy. Carpets in unit day rooms were so ingrained with dirt that cleaning efforts were no longer effective. Maintenance issues including damaged ceilings and broken windows had not been addressed.

Staff shortages and redeployment impacted on access to recreation

The recreation program was severely impacted by custodial staffing shortages. Recreation officers were frequently redeployed to cover staff shortages in the units, which meant that recreation operated at a reduced capacity or closed altogether. We remain concerned that access to structured recreation is likely to worsen as the prison continues to expand. There is still no provision for additional recreation infrastructure associated with the increase in prisoner numbers.

There was good support for Aboriginal prisoners, but resources had not increased

Aboriginal prisoners received good support from Aboriginal staff in key positions, such as the Coordinator Aboriginal Prisoner Services, Prison Support Officers, Aboriginal Mental Health Worker and the Aboriginal Visitors Scheme. Kaartdijin Mia, meaning ‘knowledge place’ in Noongar, is a cultural and learning space located within Casuarina. It was a positive place, highly valued by staff and prisoners. Despite the significant increase in Aboriginal numbers at Casuarina in recent years, there had been no increase in resources for Kaartdijin Mia.

Staffing and infrastructure issues contributed to more limited access to health care

Recruitment and retention of health staff was difficult because the prison system offered fewer job entitlements and incentives compared to the Department of Health. There was a shortage of clinical rooms in the outpatients building and the infirmary infrastructure was old and outdated (but was being replaced in the next stage of the expansion project).

The staffing and infrastructure issues contributed to more limited access to primary health care for prisoners. Requests to see a medical officer were triaged by the nursing team and the first appointment was usually with a nurse. If an appointment was made with a medical officer, the likely wait for an appointment was two to three months.

Staff shortages affected delivery of mental health and psychological services

Casuarina was experiencing staff shortages in the mental health team and Psychological Health Services team, which impacted delivery of services in those areas. Most of the available resources were taken up by crisis services for prisoners at high risk and there was limited capacity for ongoing counselling.

Casuarina was frequently managing prisoners who were suffering from severe mental illness because there were no beds available at the Frankland Centre, the state’s only secure forensic mental health unit.

Support for prisoners with a disability was limited and unclear

At Casuarina, 70 prisoners (about 6% of the total population) were flagged with a disability alert on the Department’s offender database. However, this was likely to be an underrepresentation of the true numbers. We found the pathway for a prisoner to receive additional disability support was unclear and there was confusion about the process for making applications to the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

The Peer Support team and Aboriginal Visitors Scheme played an important role 

At the time of our inspection, there were 37 prisoners employed as peer support workers. We found the team to be dedicated and committed to their role of supporting other prisoners. Some peer support prisoners had completed a Certificate IV in Mental Health and a disability training course. These were excellent initiatives that should be made available more regularly to the whole peer support team.

The Aboriginal Visitors Scheme was valued highly in the prison but only one of four part-time positions was filled. Poor remuneration and high workload contributed to turnover of staff and made recruitment more difficult.

Mallee Rehabilitation Centre offered a different approach to imprisonment

One of the most significant developments at Casuarina since our previous inspection had been the opening of the Mallee Rehabilitation Centre (‘Mallee’). A residential alcohol and other drugs rehabilitation program called Solid Steps was run in partnership between custodial staff and private providers Palmerston and Wungening Aboriginal Corporation. The program appeared to be working well and feedback from participants was very positive, but it was too early for formal evaluation.

We found strong, collaborative relationships among both custodial and non-custodial staff who were highly motivated to be involved in the program and support the participants. Prior to the opening of Mallee, custodial and non-custodial staff completed training on trauma-informed practice. This training was highly valued by staff. However, staff who had joined the unit after opening did not receive this training.

There was a backlog in sentence planning and a shortfall in program delivery

The Individual Management Plan (IMP) is the key sentence planning document that sets out a prisoner’s security classification, prison placement, education and training needs, and program requirements. At Casuarina, there were around 120 overdue IMPs, some up to 12 months overdue.

There was a significant shortfall in program availability. There were 564 identified program needs at Casuarina. Of those, 135 (24%) would not be available to the prisoner during their time in custody.

There were not enough jobs for the growing prisoner population

Unemployment and underemployment within the prisoner population remained very high. There were about 350 prisoners not working, and another 250 employed in unit jobs. This meant 600 prisoners at Casuarina – about 54% of the population – had very little to do all day.

Vocational and Support Officers (VSOs) who run the industries workshops were regularly redeployed to cover prison officer shortages in the units. Without VSOs, the workshops did not open, and prisoners stayed in their units instead of going to work. The prison’s ability to keep workplaces open was also affected by vacant VSO positions and unplanned absences.

The education centre was busy and productive but capacity was too low

There were 30 full-time and 19 part-time students attending the education centre each week. There were also other prisoners engaged in part-time education who were employed in other areas of the prison. The education centre was operating close to maximum capacity but for a prison population of more than 1,100, the overall participation was low.

Although education was running well and providing great benefit to those involved, too few prisoners were able to access it. Infrastructure in the education centre had not expanded in line with the rest of the prison. As a result, its capacity was fundamentally too low.

Page last updated: October 23, 2023
150: Inspection of Casuarina Prison