NSW Prisons At Breaking Point, Say Staff


Underfunding combined with a record number of inmates has led to overcrowding and understaffing at NSW prisons, a reduction in rehabilitation programs and a number of dangerous incidents — including a 40-hour lockdown of all prisoners at Goulburn jail — union representatives say.

Low staff numbers are also putting inmates and officers at risk as restless inmates are forced to sit in their cells for hours at a time during lockdowns. 

There are currently more than 10,000 inmates in prisons across the state.

Court transcripts of the 14 February dispute between union officials and management of Goulburn jail in the Industrial Relations court show the lockdown occurred after officers were presented with a “variable operations routine” — a schedule designed to run the centre on limited staff, by taking officers off posts and locking down certain wings, pods and units.

After five hours of negotiation, in which alternative plans offered by union delegates were knocked back by management, the NSW Department of Corrective Services ordered a full lockdown of the jail, sending all officers home.

Delegates of the Public Services Union, which encompasses the Prison Officers Vocational Branch (POVB), told the court the “variable operations routine” was putting staff at risk .

Acting industrial officer of the POVB, Dave McAuley, said:

The concern we have is that we have minimal staffing, maximum inmates. Goulburn Correctional Centre at the moment is 60 inmates above its inmate capacity… we are in continual consultation with the department in regards to recruiting full time prison officers, but budgetary constraints don’t allow that.

"Variable operations routines" — or in other words, running a prison on a skeleton staff — are now the norm in NSW prisons. When the prison population began to drop in 2009, they were introduced as part of a mass redundancy plan for prison officers, in an attempt to downsize the staff to match the prison population.

The routines have remained, even as the NSW prison population returned to maximum capacity. A spokesperson from the department told NM that “the VOR can be implemented as a contingency by centre management, in negotiation with custodial staff and union representatives”.

“VORs are aimed at ensuring the best deployment of officers so that programs and industries segments in a prison can continue to operate, while maintaining staff safety and prison security,” the spokesperson said.

According to Singleton, who is vice chairperson of the POVB, the NSW prison system has enough staff to cover 9100 inmates — but the current number is a lot higher than that.

In June 2013, the department told a NSW Parliamentary Select Committee that “as of the 30th September 2012 there were 9,485 full time inmates in correctional centres across New South Wales, which at the time had an operational capacity to hold 10,562 full-time inmates”, meaning NSW jails were operating at 89.8 per cent of capacity.

A recent report from the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research shows that the NSW inmate population has now increased to 10,937.

During the Industrial court proceedings, the department also said that a “spare capacity of approximately 5 per cent is required to provide the ideal buffer for the efficient and effective management of the inmate population”.

But for Singleton, this is a dangerous situation. “In a minimum security prison five years ago, when the cuts began, there were roughly 70 inmates per wing with two officers working,” she told NM.

“Today it is common to have just under 100 inmates, with no change to the number of officers.”

This ratio puts both inmates and officers at risk, she said, with inmates forced to sit in their cells for hours at a time during lockdowns, unable to shower or use the yard to exercise. 

“Inmates left in [an]overcrowded environment with no constructive way to spend their time, no exercise or education, leads to heightened aggression and agitation, which presents bigger risks to the safety of officers,” Singleton said.

She added that in the event of an emergency on an afternoon or night shift, only an extra two officers could attend the incident without having to lock down another wing. She used the example of a near riot at Long Bay Correctional Facility three years ago, when it took 15 minutes to get 50 staff on the scene to control 300 angry prisoners.

Singleton declined to elaborate on security procedures, but said “the union believe the officer to inmate ratio is insufficient for staff and inmate safety”.

The department claims that “a safe staffing level within a correctional system is not adequately reflected by a simple officer-to-inmate ratio” and staffing levels vary according to a range of factors, such as “the centre’s design, layout and its security classification.”

According to Singleton, programs necessary for rehabilitation — like the sex offenders' program — are not increasing their availability with the rising prison population because of staff shortages.

At present, she says “there is a long waiting list. Many are on the waiting list in excess of a year. If it is a condition of parole that they undergo a program, it is not unusual for them to do the program in their parole time due to no position having been available earlier. This is due to insufficient resources.”

The lack of programs can result in inmates leaving prison with no job skills or employment history, making it harder for them to integrate back into their community upon release.

Singleton also says that cost cutting has led to inmates being reclassified from maximum to minimum security as quickly as possible. Minimum security facilities require a smaller number of staff for each prisoner, reducing labour costs.

“The difference between a maximum and a minimum security prisoner is 30 seconds and the stroke of a pen,” Singleton told NM.

The Department of Corrective Services declined to give comment on New Matilda’s questions about reclassification.

Update: A spokesperson for Corrective Services has has denied that Variable Operation Routines (VORs) are used to cover shortages caused by staff downsizes and refuted the claim that inmates can be moved from maximum to minimum security “at the stroke of a pen”: “VORs were first introduced in 2005 providing a contingency for when rostered staff fail to report to duty at a particular prison at short notice due to illness or other reasons – such as occurred at the Goulburn Correctional Centre in February," the spokesperson said.

"Such cases leave centre management unable to operate the prison at full capacity because they have not had enough notice to get adequate replacement staff. Management then consult with the centre’s custodial staff and union representatives on the best staff deployment for the day that maximises the prison’s operations while not compromising staff safety and centre security. The VOR may also be implemented when staff are deployed to a medical escort of an inmate.”

The spokesperson added: “It is impossible for an inmate to go directly from being maximum security to minimum security 'at the stroke of a pen'. Policy dictates inmates must first step down through and spend some time on medium-security classification. Staffing levels or cost never influence inmate classification, which is assessed strictly on an individual, case-by-case basis in keeping with CSNSW responsibility to ensure correctional centre security and community safety."

"The classification policy and procedure process involves multiple teams of Corrective Services NSW that carefully consider each individual on their merits according to the length of their sentence, their performance in prison, and their commitment to undertaking rehabilitation, education and work programs. Additionally, no serious offender can move from being maximum security without first having the recommendation of the independent Serious Offenders Review Council (SORC) and the specific approval of the Commissioner of Corrective Services NSW.”

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