Prison disciplinary hearings held ‘in the dark’ with little transparency

Prison disciplinary hearings held ‘in the dark’ with little transparency

07/07/2021

Victoria’s Ombudsman has found the state’s prisoners are being denied basic rights and are routinely offered back-room deals, including for treatment programs, with little means to appeal.

About 10,000 disciplinary hearings are held across the state’s 14 prisons every year and can result in prisoners being fined or stripped of privileges as punishment for breaking rules for conduct including assaults, verbal abuse or smuggling in contraband.

Victoria’s prison disciplinary process has come under scrutiny.Credit:Angela Wylie

In a report released on Wednesday morning, Ombudsman Deborah Glass said prisoners were denied basic procedural fairness because there was no formal requirement for written reasons for decisions and no internal review processes in place.

“Fairness for prisoners may not be a popular subject, but the lack of it damages our reputation as a civilised society,” Ms Glass said

“Disciplinary hearings in Victorian prisons are still carried out in the dark with insufficient scrutiny, oversight or transparency.”

In one case, a prisoner said he was made a back-room offer and told if he pleaded guilty, he would remain on the methadone program. But the deal to continue his prescription medication, used to treat heroin dependence, was ignored and he was removed from the program anyway.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass released the investigation on Wednesday.Credit:Penny Stephens

In another instance, a suicidal prisoner was charged for resisting a strip-search while being moved to an observation cell.

“I didn’t plead guilty,” one prisoner told the Ombudsman’s investigation.

“I said, ‘Listen I think you’ve made a mistake’… the [hearing officer] said ‘You have to plead guilty to something to get out of the slot’.”

Prison disciplinary hearings are run by prison officers and while states such as Queensland provide a statutory right to review, in Victoria if a prisoner wants to challenge a decision, their only option is to apply to the Supreme Court.

“There remains limited oversight of the process and relatively few opportunities for independent advice or support for prisoners,” the report said.

Despite previous investigations being conducted into the process, Ms Glass said her office decided to look into the issue again because she was still receiving about 60 complaints a year.

Among the six recommendations of Ms Glass’ report, she called on the Department of Justice and Community Safety to create a dedicated team responsible for conducting disciplinary hearings and internal reviews.

According to the report, the department is considering the recommendation as part of the government’s independent review into the culture of Victoria’s prison system.

The review was announced after the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission said last month it had “uncovered serious systemic corruption issues” facing the corrections sector.

The IBAC report said staff at Victorian prisons were inappropriately strip-searching and using excessive force against prisoners, misusing private information and smuggling contraband in and out of jail.

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