Rising tensions in understaffed Victorian prisons

The incarceration rate in Victoria has risen steadily over the past 10 years, with the number of Aboriginal inmates nearly doubling in that time. Meanwhile, the state government is actively trying to recruit new prison staff to address the shortage.

During a visit to Marngoneet Correctional Center on Wednesday, the CPSU observed increased unrest among prisoners, particularly over the extended period they were supposed to remain in their cells.

A prison official, who asked to remain anonymous, claimed prisoners are now locked up from 5pm to 8am, making it harder for some to contact their families. Prisoners have reportedly expressed their demoralization as conditions gradually approach those of maximum security prisons.

“They say ‘what’s the point of the behavior,'” the officer said.

“We are becoming poorer citizens. The correction system goes backwards.”

Opposition Corrections spokesman Brad Battin, who was a prison officer for two years, said the staff shortage is having an impact on both the physical and mental well-being of prisoners, particularly when it leads to increased isolation in cells.

“It makes recovery and rehabilitation difficult. The potential to then bring people back into the community worse off than they went in is a real possibility,” he said.

This, in turn, puts the remaining employees at risk, Battin said. “If you [prisoners] If they build up anger when they’re in their cell, they might retaliate and say, ‘We’re tired of being locked up’.”

Tensions are rising among prisoners at Marngoneet Correctional Center amid staff shortages.

Tensions are rising among prisoners at Marngoneet Correctional Center amid staff shortages.Credit:Craig Abraham

Sarah Schwartz, senior counsel at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service’s Wirraway practice, said prison numbers are increasing as prison staff numbers decrease.

“Staffing problems in Victoria’s prisons reflect the fact that there are too many people in Victoria’s prisons,” she said.

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“No one in prison should have their human rights violated because of understaffing. Reducing the prison population is the best outcome for everyone.”

Liberty Victoria Vice President Michelle Bennett said a lack of trained staff for prisoners could be a “life or death problem” and that time in cells should be strictly limited.

“For prisoners, increasing isolation is limiting their opportunities for rehabilitation and, consequently, their ability to successfully reintegrate into the community,” she said.

In an effort to encourage job retention, the CPSU is negotiating new rosters for a number of medium-security prisons that would protect the net pay of correctional officers and other prison staff.

Consultations are currently underway with the affected employees and the CPSU, who will consider any impact on employees’ pay and conditions.

“This will be an issue across frontline staff,” the spokesman said, noting that similar staffing challenges currently exist for juvenile justice, child protection and public health.

Battin echoed this, adding that prisons have the added challenge of promoting a job that has sometimes been described as “99 percent boredom and 1 percent pure terror.”

“There are now more jobs than people,” Battin said. “How does the Government or Corrections Victoria encourage people to work in prisons when people can work wherever they want at the moment? How do they make it feel less like a job and more like a career?”

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A spokesman for the Justice and Community Security Departments said they regularly reviewed and updated their operational management to ensure a safe environment for staff and prisoners.

“Like many industries, we manage staff pressures in some of our medium security prisons and take appropriate precautions to ensure the security and order of the system.

The shortage comes as a new maximum-security prison — Western Plains Correctional Center — is about to open, not far from Marngoneet and Barwon Correctional Facilities.

Completed in November, the 1,248-bed center – which cost the state government $1.119 billion – is now under the direction of Corrections Victoria, which is working to secure the facility before it becomes fully operational.

When asked when the facility would start taking prisoners, a Victorian Government spokeswoman said a small number of staff had been employed at the facility to wait until a decision was made to open it fully.

Elsewhere in the country, prisons are understaffed and officers in Parklea, in western Sydney, launched a 48-hour strike in December over pay, limited staff and security concerns.

The private prison has seen two riots in the past 18 months, which officials say was partly due to prisoners realizing that there was a shortage of staff.

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https://www.smh.com.au/national/victoria/victoria-s-prisons-a-pressure-cooker-as-staff-recruitment-falls-short-20230111-p5cbum.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_national Rising tensions in understaffed Victorian prisons

Callan Tansill

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