Concerns over unsafe working conditions in prisons

A state-wide strike last week highlighted overcrowding within NSW prisons, the need to address recidivism, and a shortage of support services, an expert says.

Professor Julie Stubbs, co-director of the Centre for Crime, Law and Justice at UNSW said that the working conditions of prison officers are compromised by the added workload and stress of overcrowding.

During her visits to some state prisons last year “several officers talked very directly about low morale, about prison numbers meaning that they could no longer perform their jobs in a way they thought was best for them and best for prisoners,” she said.

Professor Stubbs said that when she visited Dawn DeLoas men’s prison late last year and Silverwater women’s prison earlier in the year she saw double bunks being installed in cells that were designed for one person, and three and four people being accommodated in some cells that previously held two people.

“Some work spaces, education rooms or recreations areas also had been re-purposed as cells.”

When Government News put these claims to the department, a spokesperson said that to increase the capacity of cells across the state, extra inmates were in some cases housed in existing cells, but unions were first consulted.

Assaults on officers rise

Professor Stubbs cited figures obtained by the Public Services Association showing a 20 per cent increase in assaults on prison officers over two years, and limited support programs for inmates, as contributing to low morale.

Data from the Department of Corrective Services NSW shows that NSW prisons have a population of 13,253 in a prison designed for 10,518 but that the rate of growth in inmate numbers has slowed.

Departmental data also shows that in in 2016-17, three quarters of prisoners with an identified program need reached their earliest parole date without completing a program.

The PSA last week protested proposed job cuts by the department.

Stewart Little, general secretary of the PSA, said the state prison system is “in crisis.”

He said the State Government had failed to adequately plan and manage for the growing population, following tighter bail laws in 2014.

According to Mr Little, the ratio of prison guards to inmates is one for every 14 inmates, which is expected to increase with proposed budget cuts.

Benchmark process 

The proposed job cuts are the result of a benchmarking process being rolled out by the department in which a prison’s performance is measured against its budget, and staff cuts or increases are made accordingly.

It was introduced after a 2015-16 NSW Commission of Audit report, which recommended such an approach.

Professor Stubbs said that report also illustrated the link between overcrowding and the inability of officers to offer support programs, which is often resulting in refused parole and recidivism.

“If overcrowding and the sheer number mean that inmates are not getting the programs they need to prevent reoffending it puts all sorts of pressure on the system,” she said.

Data from 2017 shows more than half of NSW’s prisoners return to prison within two years of release.

Mr Little said the benchmarking program fails to address the underlying cause of overcrowding in prisons, which he says is a state crackdown on bail and a failure by the government to plan for an unprecedented increase in inmate numbers.

State response: 2,000 new jobs

The NSW Government this week announced that it will create 2,000 new corrections jobs over the next three years to address prison overcrowding.

A spokesperson for the department also said that the State Government has spent $3.8 billion to fund additional beds and engage more than 2,000 staff in the past four years, whilst undertaking expansion works at a number of facilities, including South Coast and Long Bay facilities.

Mr Little said that the jobs created by the department will not be sufficient to account for the radical increase in the prison population.

Professor Stubbs cited the development of two rapid build prisons last year which accommodate multiple inmates as an example of a short-term measure to address overcrowding that is “at odds” with findings from previous royal commissions that preferenced single-cell prisons.

She argues that a preventative approach which addresses disproportionate prison-inmate numbers is crucial to improve conditions.

“If they had better ratios, if they had more opportunities to deliver programs and be involved in practices in the prison they see as valuable, that’s got to go to officer wellbeing, which may have some positive impacts on prisoner wellbeing as well,” she said.

An order from the Industrial Relations Commission against industrial action by the PSA remains in place until May 12.

This story has been updated with a response from the department.

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