State jails still in third world

by Chris Griffith
Published 2 August 1992 in The Sun-Herald


my face


Last week the Queensland Government, deservedly, made a show-piece of closing Brisbane's infamous Boggo Road jail.

The cameras clicked as Corrective Services Minister Glen Milliner shut the gates on a prison renowned for its "black hole" cells and its Number Two Division, where prisoners used buckets for toilets.

The Government and the Corrective Services Commission have much to be proud of. The state's incarceration rate has dropped from 140 per 100,000 population in June 1990 to 102 per 100,000, and the recidivism rate from a high of 63 pc to 47 pc.

But does Queensland have other Boggo Road's, antiquated prisons which combined with an antiquated culture render them behind the eight-ball in Kennedy report reforms?

Take, for example, Townsville's Stuart Correctional Centre. Prisoners' Legal Service co-ordinator Mary Burgess says the unsewered cells in Townsville's B and C blocks are the same design as Division Two at Boggo Road.

Ms Burgess said B and C blocks housed many Aborigines prisoners who never complained about their lot.

It took complaints to her from prisoners moved there from Brisbane for a visit to be arranged which, thankfully, resulted in these Divisions being closed last December, but she fears they could be reopened. However, complaints about the prison do not end there.

Recently, the state's Industrial Relations' Commission (IRC) lifted its embargo on two reports into the operation of Townsville and Rockhampton's Etna Creek prisons.

These reports examined State Services Union concern that low levels of prison staffing had compromised security and, in Townsville's case, had facilitated the heinous bashing of two prison officers in the jail laundry during an attempted escape in March.

The resulting industrial dispute is unresolved, compounded by speculation that prison officer numbers in Townsville could be reduced by 60 out of `floated' state-wide cuts of 140.

Last week Townsville staff voted to end negotiations over management reform plans that could reduce staff until the IRC released its decision on the bashings' dispute.

Meanwhile, the two reports, while suggesting extra staff could have prevented the bashings, have exposed major problems with Townsville's operation.

The first report, by QUT's Community Development and Crime Prevention Unit, looked at the pattern of assaults and working conditions at the jails. The second, by Paul Lunney of the Government's Division of Workplace Health and Safety, examined the prisons' physical conditions -- the noise, dangerous chemicals, poor ventilation, and heat.

The QUT report said: "The performance by management in terms of educating personnel for reforms, of opening up channels of communication, of reconciling Managers' Rules from the old system to the new reforms ... has been very poor."

Mr Milliner's response to events is to describe Townsville as "a difficult centre" that is "high on our priority to do a number of things" -- extensions to the unit management system, infrastructure work, and staffing.

"I think it's fair to say that in a couple of institutions and Townsville is one of them there have been more difficulties there than elsewhere," Mr Milliner said.

And Corrective Services Commission deputy director-general, Stan Macionis, says: "There's still a large amount of change that the commission's looking for at Townsville Correctional Centre, and perhaps more there than at some other correctional centres."

The reports not only criticised management performance; they exposed prison staff attitudes and practices which have continued because of insufficient retraining and a lack of understanding of the reform process.

For example, an officer in a prison tower above the laundry demonstrated to the investigators how he could have fired shots into the laundry area in order to prevent the bashings.

The QUT report said: "This seemed to be a foolhardy idea given the poor visibility from the Tower to the inside area and the possibility of hitting someone or of puncturing the boilers causing an explosion, or of ricocheting bullets."

This report also found that three prisoners were responsible for 52 pc of all assaults from March '91 to March '92, and asked why prisoners who habitually assaulted officers were not moved.

"The prisoner had to be kept at Townsville for court appearances in relation to the assaults on officers, yet the longer he stayed, the more assaults were made," the report said.

The reports described the working conditions in the prison laundry in Summer as "unbearably hot", with the Aboriginal laundry staff working on machines which "cut out at 45 degrees".

"Comment was made by the Trade Instructor as to the fact that the prisoners are `bucking at the knees' by early afternoon as a result of the heat in the area," the Lunney report said.

Laundries in Queensland's prisons are big business. Townsville's Stuart Correctional Centre laundry in 1991-92 generated $540,000, an amount over 50 pc of that prison's industries revenue of $1,009,000.

The Corrective Services Commission has now placed a new laundry at the top of its capital works list and the State Government, to its credit, acknowledges the need for change.

"What we plan to do is to build another laundry and also knock down the draconian accommodation that's up there," Mr Milliner said.

He says trade instructors have and will down tools if it gets too hot.

Yet the minister says nobody has complained before about the laundry's working conditions and questions just how uncomfortable it is for the Aboriginal prisoners working there.

"I go to Torres Strait, and I nearly die up there in the heat in Summer, yet to see them up there playing football and cricket. They're acclimatised to it to a certain degree," he said.

Meanwhile, an ABC journalist in Townsville says the Government intends charging him "just under $100" for a copy of the second (Lunney) report, a mere 14 pages ... oh the price of vigilance!