Ombudsman scathing of increasing risk of death and self-harm in Victoria’s overcrowded prisons

March 26, 2013 |

Findings from the Victorian Ombudsman’s investigation into deaths in custody tabled in Parliament today offer a scathing assessment and an urgent warning of the consequences of further unchecked prison overcrowding, according to Smart Justice, a coalition of 29 organisations led by the Federation of Community Legal Centres.

“The Ombudsman has directly linked overcrowding in our prisons, lack of appropriate health services, and continuing high-prevalence of hanging points to an increasing risk of self-harm and death,” said Michelle McDonnell, Smart Justice spokesperson for the Federation, today.

The report found that 38 per cent of prison cells continue to include hanging points with no immediate plan by Corrections Victoria to address this more than two decades after the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended that all hanging points be removed.

“The Ombudsman has implicated hanging points in six deaths in Victoria’s prison system over six years. This is a fatal risk that the State has allowed to continue despite continuing deaths and previous recommendations that now span more than 20 years.

Among these, the report found a “failure to comply with the recommendations of the State Coroner in terms of improving cell safety and the accommodation of prisoners with mental health issues”. The report found that the State Government had redirected $11 million from funding to upgrade cell safety.

“The Ombudsman has also identified the ‘hidden toll’ of prisoner deaths following release that far outstrip deaths in custody, with little over ten per cent of prisoners able to access transitional support, leaving annually almost 6,000 prisoners released without appropriate support, including appropriate housing.

We strongly endorse the Ombudsman’s call for independent research into “the number and nature of deaths post-release,” Ms McDonnell continued.

She welcomed the call by the Ombudsman for the annual Victorian prison profile report to be reinstated to support accountability and transparency, and for an independent prison monitor to be established with oversight of both the adult prison system and youth justice detention precincts.

“The broader significance of this powerful report is that we can’t afford the human and economic costs of endlessly increasing prison capacity, and we can’t build prisons fast enough to meet the demands of a State Government approach to criminal justice that is not based on evidence of what works to improve community safety.

“It’s time to strengthen alternatives to prison for low-risk offenders who are not a threat, and to reserve prison for the safe containment of those who pose a genuine risk to community safety.

“Creating safer conditions in prison, including by reducing overcrowding – and especially hanging points – will help to reduce deaths in custody. We need a justice policy that mitigates and monitors risk, promotes rehabilitation, and reduces reoffending when prisoners are ultimately released,” McDonnell said.

“In a very urgent sense, this report by the Ombudsman is a wake-up call that our prison system needs the rigorous transparency that can only come from independent scrutiny. It is also a warning that we need alternatives to an often brutal engine of incarceration that harms not only prisoners, but ultimately the community itself.

“The pressing challenge for the Victorian Government is to acknowledge what this disturbing report means for prisons and broader justice policy,” McDonnell concluded.

Investigation into deaths and harm in custody (Victorian Ombudsman website)

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