That the report of the committee be noted.
I rise to speak to the report of the Select Committee on the Department for Correctional Services, which was laid on the table just before the winter recess. This committee was established in February 2011, during the previous session of this parliament, after revelations of deep-seated cultural issues in the department and the dysfunction caused as a result.
The catalyst for the creation of this committee was the mishandling of, or the unwillingness to address, this problem by the government, particularly the minister at the time, the current Minister for Transport and Infrastructure. It is important to highlight that the establishment of this committee was not a partisan exercise insofar as my private member’s motion was strongly supported by the crossbench of this place, and we had the inclusion of the Hon. Mr Brokenshire in the committee membership.
In these 2½ years the committee has heard a swathe of evidence from many connected to the corrections system in the state. Witnesses included departmental executives, correctional officers, union representatives, mental health workers and former employees. This gave the committee a wide array of evidence to address the terms of reference.
The mandate of the committee was quite broad, and I do not have a problem with this. Despite the fact that it may have prolonged the committee’s deliberations and pushed back the reporting date of the committee on more than one occasion, I believe one of the major tasks of the committee was to act as a forum for aggrieved employees to air their frustrations and to ease their burden, as it was often felt that there existed no recourse to the way they had been treated.
The government, particularly via the many comments made by the Hon. Mrs Zollo, insisted that this process was a witch-hunt aimed at the government, but if the concerns of these many now former employees were addressed appropriately, and to the satisfaction of the aggrieved parties, obviously there would have been no need for them to appear before the committee. As chairman I have the responsibility of explaining the committee’s deliberations and subsequent report, an unfortunate task given the many failures and sad cases identified.
The first witness was then departmental chief executive Mr Peter Severin. Mr Severin defended the department’s record in the areas of concern for the committee and also against the assumed accusations of disgruntled employees. Unfortunately, Mr Severin seemed to dismiss the accusations as being the opinion of a select few and painted these few as instigators and agitators. It was interesting to me, and to most on the committee, that Mr Severin’s testimony appeared contradictory. On one hand he defended the department’s record in the area of employee grievances and dispute resolution, yet presented the committee with a detailed plan of how the then current procedures were to be reformed, as weaknesses had been identified.
This was a farcical situation. How could a chief executive defend his department as running smoothly when concurrently it had been identified as being dysfunctional enough to warrant a complete overhaul of operating procedures? Interestingly, the minister was quiet during all this, a trait which he is not generally known for. It was clear even before Mr Severin gave his evidence that the department had capacity issues, around 98 per cent, with close to zero spare beds.
Mr Severin did identify that certain upgrades had been planned, including the use of ‘modular accommodation’, which is the official term for shipping containers. The department was looking into opportunities to double-up cells, presumably in line with the government’s policy of ‘rack ’em, pack ’em and stack ’em’ as articulated by former deputy premier, the Hon. Kevin Foley.
The very few additional beds to be opened up in the coming years will barely match the predicted prisoner increase and, in further evidence heard by the committee, Mr Kernich, a correctional officer, highlighted cases where prisoners were held in police cells and inappropriate double-ups, where the cells ‘don’t meet international standards, nor those of peak prison bodies in Australia and elsewhere’.
Mr Kernich also claimed that women prisoners were accommodated at the City Watchhouse, which lacks basic female sanitary equipment and where the officers were not trained in handling female prisoners. This was despite Mr Severin stating that there were 118 spare beds at the Adelaide Women’s Prison. This is one of the many bizarre situations which seem to occur in the department, which at the very least obviously has serious communication issues.
This brings me to one particularly shocking example that highlights the serious lack of procedure and oversight amongst the departmental hierarchy, as well as the basic lack of communication, but chiefly a lack of basic human decency that would be inappropriate and shocking in a Third World country, let alone here in South Australia. I refer to the evidence of correctional officer Mr Alan Radford, who brought to the committee’s attention the case of two prisoners who had clear mental and psychological deficiencies and were housed in the infirmary of Yatala as a result. According to Mr Radford, the female prisoner spent:
…nine months—20 hours of a 24-hour day—handcuffed to a bed with two handcuffs on each side…That female had an officer on her 24 hours a day, and yet even if she was behaving, they did not relax the time that she was in cuffs.
As honourable members would be aware due to the press coverage this case received last year, this was occurring right up until two months before Mr Radford gave his evidence in June 2012, well after the committee opened its inquiry.
The second case was that of a severely disabled Aboriginal offender, who in the opinion of Mr Radford would have been granted bail if he were ‘any other person’. He was held in the infirmary because ‘the system could not work out what to do with him’. Whatever your opinions, this should not be acceptable in any jurisdiction, let alone in South Australia—a jurisdiction that historically has prided itself on fairness and social progress.
I move on to another concern now, that is, the housing of remandees at Yatala Labour Prison. Mr Severin made it abundantly clear that ‘South Australia has not ever had a policy of completely separating remand prisoners from sentence prisoners’. We later heard from Mr Kernich’s submission that in South Australia there exist some of the ‘worst examples, including the celling up together of young remandees for minor offences (e.g. driving disqualified) with convicted multiple murderers’.
I understand the capacity pressures placed on the department, and I also understand, as Mr Severin pointed out, that this is standard practice in most jurisdictions in Australia. However, I believe the real reason for this problem is capacity pressures that are directly caused by the government’s budgetary crisis. Would this situation exist if the government could afford to go through with its previous plan for a new prison?
We know that the government strategy is to add to the existing ageing infrastructure with a patchwork of upgrades. Where these upgrades perhaps should be focused is on the safety of existing cells, particularly to prevent unnecessary deaths in custody. The ability in recent times of some prisoners to end their own lives whilst in custody is a disgrace from a government’s duty of care perspective, as it robs the prisoner of a chance to rehabilitate, and in some cases robs the victims and their families of justice. Correctional services ministers of this government, both past and present, have been silent on this issue, and to me that is not good enough.
The committee heard from the department on the recent escapes—including that of Drew Claude Griffiths in 2011—which were totally unacceptable. The escapes occurred during transport, which is contracted out to the security firm G4S. However, the buck stops with the minister—a responsibility which he delegates to his department and its procedures. It is widely known that following his escape Drew Claude Griffiths carjacked a vehicle on Wakefield Street, stole firearms from a gun store, attempted to rob a jewellery store and briefly escaped custody again from the Royal Adelaide Hospital. This escape exposed glaring gaps in prison transfer procedures and attracted warranted criticism of the minister at the time.
One final matter in regard to the testimony of Mr Severin was the issue of his general letter to all departmental employees regarding the submission of evidence to the committee and/or appearing as a witness before the committee. In this letter, Mr Severin made it clear to all employees that any unilateral action without prior permission of the chief executive was not allowed, specifically that any request for documents to be submitted must go through the chief executive. Whether the intention or not, this gives the ability of the chief executive to gag any criticism. It should be noted, of course, that Mr Severin denied that this was the case and stated that this was merely the advice he has received from crown law. It is clear from the testimony of officers that staff interpreted this as a threat or, at the very least, as intimidating.
One of the major concerns of the committee, and one on which a significant amount of time was spent collating evidence, was that of workplace bullying and the perceived culture of intimidation. This issue was brought to the attention of the Hon. Mr Brokenshire before the establishment of the select committee by two men—Mr Alan Radford and Mr Neil Franklin. The crux of the issue stems from the unsuitability of standing operating procedure No. 60 to appropriately address employee complaints and to resolve disputes.
Many of those officers were reluctant to use the procedure or report incidents for fear of reprisal or because the complaints were about the very superiors they were expected to report to. The lack of any anonymous reporting methods or any serious internal affairs type operation is obvious and important to note. Given that much of this evidence was given in camera, it is difficult to go into detail; it is suffice to say, however, that the evidence was concerning to the committee.
Complaints about a lack of adherence to standard procedure were commonplace, as were complaints from many about being overworked and certain units being understaffed. The committee heard evidence from community corrections officers about ridiculous workloads, coupled with impossible time limits that led to angst in many units. There was particular concern around the introduction of the Offender Risk Needs Inventory-Revised Risk assessment tool and the time taken to conduct a review to the appropriate standard and that community corrections officers were expected to meet certain daily quotas for the number of completed reviews. Surely the need for a thorough review and the need for a daily minimum quota are completely juxtaposed. This is one serious question arising from the evidence given.
While I could go into much more detail, a much more comprehensive and eloquent summary is contained within the report, Mr President, as I am sure you and other honourable members have seen. I encourage all honourable members to comment, if they feel the need, and I certainly welcome the comments of the other members of the committee, namely, the Hon. Mr Brokenshire, the Hon. Mr Wade, the Hon. Mr Kandelaars and the Hon. Mrs Zollo.
As chairman of the committee, I sincerely wish to thank all honourable members for their contributions during deliberations and for committing their time diligently to the causes of the committee. It is my understanding that the government has a dissenting statement, which I look forward to hearing, but I hope it is reasonable in that it recognises the serious flaws and issues identified by the committee.
Lastly, I would like to thank all those people who came; some showed enormous courage to come and give evidence, knowing that it probably was going to make their working lives more difficult for some period of time. I respect that and acknowledge their courage. With these words, I commend the motion to the council.