Report on investigations into the use of force at the Metropolitan Remand Centre and the Melbourne Assessment Prison

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For as long as I have been in my role as Ombudsman, allegations of excessive force against prisoners have been high on the list of themes complained about to my office.

For as long as I have been in my role as Ombudsman, allegations of excessive force against prisoners have been high on the list of themes complained about to my office. Sometimes they become public interest (whistleblower) complaints referred by IBAC.

Despite their frequency, some 31 per cent of matters referred to us each year by IBAC, none have resulted in my reporting to Parliament –until now.

These allegations are usually hard to investigate, and harder to substantiate. Prisons are inherently challenging environments.Prisoners can frequently exhibit violent and unpredictable behaviours. Many prisoners have complex needs which can result in behaviour that endangers themselves, prison officers or other prisoners. The use of force by prison officers may frequently be necessary in the interests of safety and good order of the prison. Allegations may also be vexatious.

But sometimes they are justified. And when there is a justifiable complaint about unreasonable force, prisoners face uniquely difficult circumstances. The imbalance of power between a prisoner and prison officer is acute. While allegations of assault are sometimes referred to the police, many of their investigations, like our own, go nowhere for lack of evidence. Prisoners themselves may be reluctant to co-operate for fear of reprisal. The culture of silence within prisons makes it harder to obtain objective evidence than in other environments.

Many reports, from many agencies, over many years, have sought to examine the extent and nature of this problem. Most recently, IBAC tabled a Special report on corrections in June2021 which highlighted four cases and made extensive recommendations for addressing workplace culture.

My report examines a small number of incidents of use of force, all matters referred by IBAC about two Victorian prisons, in that broader context.

It follows eight separate incidents alleging excessive force, with injuries ranging from minor bruising to a broken wrist, at the Metropolitan Remand Centre and the Melbourne Assessment Prison. We substantiated four of the eight cases, but all showed concerning behaviour or poor decision making by officers.

While this is a small number, the evidence of our investigations – in the context of previous reports, reviews, and the overall data illustrates the persistent and endemic nature of the problems, despite the best efforts of Corrections Victoria to address them.

Allegations of unreasonable use of force do not appear to be declining. The incidents in this report present a disturbing picture; even when the allegations were not substantiated, we found officers used force on people with acquired brain injuries or other vulnerabilities, because the prison environment had created a situation where it became necessary.

For example, a young man with an acquired brain injury who thought he was going to court that day and expected to be allowed home, found out after waiting more than two hours that the court cells were full and he had been left behind. Not surprisingly he was upset. Upon being taken back to his cell, he responded
with verbal threats. This resulted in a physical altercation with five officers. We did not substantiate that the force was excessive, but we had little doubt it could have been avoided if the situation had been handled better.

The shifting population of remand prisons, where officers are largely unable to develop positive working relationships with prisoners, increases the likelihood of incidents escalating and force being used. However, these cases are still suggestive of the broader prison culture.

Corrections Victoria has undoubtedly worked hard to address the problem, including increasing the use of body worn cameras, and it says its recruitment is focused on finding candidates with the appropriate attitude and capabilities.

But the problem remains. Among other things, performance management processes still do not do enough to identify and act on patterns of poor officer behaviour. A culture of silence in which officers do not report wrongdoing by their fellows has long been known to exist within the prison environment. However, as the evidence in this report also shows, strong leadership within a prison can help shift this culture and support greater accountability for officers who cross the line.

This report makes several recommendations which I hope help to address the problems, and I am pleased that Corrections Victoria has mostly accepted them. I also welcome the continuing Cultural Review of the AdultCustodial Corrections System commissioned by the Government, with its intention to improve the safety and wellbeing of both staff and prisoners.

There is no easy fix for these longstanding and sometimes intractable issues, and this report does not purport to solve them. Its purpose is to expose what is too often hidden behind prison walls and to encourage actions in addition to words, in the interests of everyone’s safety. And to ensure that our prisons are what we signed up for in our Charter of Human Rights legislation: places where prisoners have the right to humane treatment when deprived of liberty.

Deborah Glass