Potential for prisoners to be treated ‘unfairly’

The Victorian Ombudsman says disciplinary hearings in Victorian prisons are being carried out in the dark with insufficient scrutiny, oversight or transparency.

A VICTORIAN Ombudsman investigation has found prisoner disciplinary hearings are still done “in the dark” and the potential for unfairness remains rife.
Across Victoria’s 14 prisons, which includes Fulham Correctional Centre, there are about 10,000 prison disciplinary process annually dealing with prisoners who break prison rules.
The investigation found that three quarters of reviewed hearing files had incomplete or inconsistent records, and undocumented pre-hearing discussions were potentially widespread.
Prisoners were not given written reasons for decisions or were given sufficient information about charges, leading to procedural unfairness.
The probe into the prison disciplinary process, which deals with prisoners who break prison rules, also found prisoners with mental health issues and cognitive impairment were not always offered adequate support and information.
It also identified a lack of discretion in taking forward minor offences to a formal disciplinary process – adding to the burden on prisons, the prison officer and prisoners.
Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass said despite improvements being implemented, following a report by the previous Ombudsman in 2011 on the same issue, reports and complaints to the office continued.
“Fairness for prisoners may not be a popular subject, but the lack of it damages our reputation as a civilised society,” Ms Glass said
“Disciplinary hearings in Victorian prisons are still carried out in the dark with insufficient scrutiny, oversight or transparency.
“While we observed some good practices and decisions, the potential for unfairness is still rife.”
There was also a perception of bias identified in some cases with the same prison officer who issued the charge presiding over the hearing, and a lack of transparency when requests for different
hearing officers were refused.
Some of the cases the investigation reviewed included:
• A suicidal prisoner with mental health conditions being charged – despite apologising a day later – after he resisted a strip-search while being moved to an observation cell;
• A prisoner officer reportedly reneging on a back room offer to a prisoner after telling him he would not be taken off the methadone program if he pleaded guilty;
• A prisoner with an intellectual disability whose charges were dismissed after an independent advocate demonstrated they did
could not remember the incident or understand the proceedings;
• Officers not considering prisoners’ intellectual disabilities when handing out fines or ensuring they had independent support; and
• Reports of prisoners found guilty in hearings losing opportunities for parole and having other privileges such as telephone calls and out-of-cell time withdrawn. In some cases, prisoners may also miss out on contact visits.
The current legislation provides no right of review of decisions – if a prisoner wishes to challenge a decision, their only option is to apply to the Supreme Court for judicial review.
Ms Glass said written reasons and internal reviews were key to good administrative decision-making, and Corrections Victoria should not fear implementing her recommendations.
The Victorian Ombudsman’s Investigation into good practice when conducting prison disciplinary hearings was tabled in parliament earlier this month.