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Prisons ‘at a critical point’ in WA after years of decline, corruption watchdog warns

Serious reform in the Western Australian correctional system is now well overdue, according to the Corruption and Crime Commission, which has criticised the newly created Department of Justice for a “disturbing failure to respond to recommendations” going back as far as 2012.

The frustrated investigative agency issued 20 new recommendations last week that go towards a “wholesale change of culture, simplified policies and procedures and improved technology” in the state’s prisons, warning parliamentarians that their prison system needs to change its ways.

“By their nature, prisons can be at high risk of corruptive behaviour unless appropriate safeguards and policies are in place.”

Distilling the latest issues into four concise points, the watchdog finds a “poor reporting culture” remains within corrective services, and it still lacks both an overarching framework and specific strategies for preventing corruption. “By their nature, prisons can be at high risk of corruptive behaviour unless appropriate safeguards and policies are in place,” the CCC reminds parliament.

Corrective services used to be a standalone department but merged with the Attorney-General’s Department in 2017 to form the DoJ, following the election, but longstanding problems remain.

The CCC’s fifth report on corrections for 2018 also covers contraband trafficking as well as “inappropriate relationships and criminals grooming officers” and was provided to the minister in full, but has sections censored in the public version at the department’s request, for security reasons.

The agency notes its 20 latest recommendations are on top of “dozens” of others it has issued over the past six years, many of which the department has not acted on.

“Although the response has been positive in some areas, in others, the Department of Justice has failed to sufficiently identify and manage corruption risks. It has now reached a critical point.”

In the past year, the anti-corruption agency has been working with the department to jointly investigate specific allegations of serious misconduct, but has found the department’s capacity to run internal investigations has run down badly. In the past two years, the CCC has referred 23 matters back to Justice to investigate, under its active oversight, and been disappointed with the results.

These issues include all the old tropes: excessive force used against prisoners in some cases, and inappropriate relationships with them in others; trafficking contraband inside; falsifying records; failing to report serious incidents; and other generally corrupt conduct.

The CCC reports “the department’s engagement with the Commission has, at times, been disappointing” but acknowledges the wheels of Justice have begun turning lately, albeit slowly.

“The Commission has received inaccurate and inconsistent information from DoJ and there have been significant unexplained delays in investigations.

“Although DoJ’s engagement with the Commission has improved in recent months, the Commission remains concerned about its internal management and ability to investigate allegations of serious misconduct.”

The senior leaders are well aware of the many issues, some of which have been highlighted by other agencies including the auditor-general’s office, but are struggling to address them at a systemic level due to a familiar story of resource constraints and staff turnover.

The CCC accepts that “in straitened financial circumstances” the correctional services leaders have undertaken “recent initiatives to address serious misconduct risks within the prison system” while having to attend to other urgent matters.

It “does not doubt the resolve” of corrective services commissioner Tony Hassall, who was permanently appointed in May, or DoJ director-general Adam Tomison and the other senior leaders it interviewed.

“However, the misconduct risks in Corrective Services are longstanding and will take more than firm resolve to mitigate,” the commission concludes. Earlier in the report, it says the desperate need for change must be recognised and embraced at all levels, from the minister to the frontline.

“The issues confronting Corrective Services are longstanding. Some are beyond the capacity of Corrective Services’ control, such as the rapid growth in prison population and increasingly stringent budget pressures. […]

“The solutions will require wholesale change of culture, improvement in technology, simplification of policies and procedures, and a commitment at all levels, not just the top, to address and reduce serious misconduct risks in prisons.”

Many of the issues in WA are regularly seen in other jurisdictions in Australia and around the world, which the CCC notes, referring to recent work by its interstate and international counterparts. There is no silver bullet but there are plenty of well-known controls.

In June this year, the CCC raised the alarm about unreasonable and excessive use of force in three separate reports, with related videos to illustrate what it looks like when correctional officers go too far, emboldened by a culture of cover-up.

“Although the reports cover a number of incidents at different prisons, they deal with common themes, being failure to report and misreporting of incidents of use of force, and officers of various seniority deliberately withholding information about use of force incidents from head office.”

Another CCC report was tabled the day before that, one of two about prison guards being “groomed and corrupted” by inmates, leading to security breaches within correctional facilities as well as on supervised excursions outside. The June press statement warned:

“The CCC’s investigative work has exposed cultural issues that compromise the integrity of the prison system, being an environment that not only allows misconduct, but fosters it; where some officers show little or no respect for rules, processes and protocols; where prison officers keep information from head office and where there is a reluctance on the part of some officers to report or identify misconduct.”

The WA watchdog’s process involves checking up on each set of recommendations after one year. According to its latest report, only 7% of the complaints it receives are about corrective services but it spends more time investigating the agency than any other, except the police, where it has a more comprehensive role.

Beside the 20 new recommendations, and the countless others that remain unaddressed, the latest report ends by simply suggesting to WA legislators that a greater sense of urgency is required:

“The Commission makes this report to Parliament, not to criticise the current leadership, but to identify a misconduct vulnerability which may affect the whole community.

“Time is passing. Action is overdue.”

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.