Corrections Victoria must continue to address workplace culture and human rights, Ombudsman says

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Despite prisons being inherently challenging environments, it is disturbing that allegations of excessive force against prisoners do not appear to be declining, Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass said.

In 2019 and 2020, the Ombudsman began investigating complaints about the unreasonable use of force at the Metropolitan Remand Centre and Metropolitan Assessment Prison. Further complaints were referred by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission. This report collates and highlights the issues identified by eight investigations which suggest serious recurring issues.

The Ombudsman, who tabled her report in Parliament today, said that despite the best efforts of Corrections Victoria to address systemic cultural and workplace issues, not enough is being done to identify and act on patterns of poor prison officer behaviour and improve performance management processes. This is exacerbated by a culture of silence that exists within prisons.

“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 when there is a justifiable complaint about unreasonable force, prisoners face uniquely difficult circumstances.

“We substantiated four of the eight cases, but all showed concerning behaviour or poor decision making by officers. 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.

“Even where allegations were not substantiated, we found officers used force on people with acquired brain injuries and other vulnerabilities, because the prison environment had created a situation where it became necessary. 

“Allegations of abuse are usually hard to investigate, and harder to substantiate. Prisoners told us that incidents were not reported for fear of making the situation worse, fear of reprisal, fear of not being believed or that no action would be taken, so it is impossible to capture the true extent of the use of force,” Ms Glass said. 

As part of the investigation, Corrections Victoria indicated that it has increased the use of body worn cameras and CCTV and says its recruitment is focused on finding candidates with the appropriate attitude and capabilities.

“The imbalance of power between a prisoner and prison officer is acute. But our Charter of Human Rights legislation makes clear that people deprived of their liberty still have the right to humane treatment. Acknowledging the challenges they too face, it is vital that Corrections Victoria staff respect that,” Ms Glass said. 

Read the report