Scathing prison report shows prisoner hearings unfairly treated

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The investigation revealed that some prisoners had been prevented from seeing their families or making phone calls. Photo: Evan Morgan

An investigation has found that disciplinary hearings of Victorian prisoners continue to be shrouded in secrecy, with room for “unfair” hearings in the system.

The Victoria Ombudsman’s investigation into the process, which deals with inmates who break prison rules, also found that inmates with mental health and cognitive impairments had not always received support and adequate information.

The investigation into the prisoner hearings also revealed that undocumented pre-hearing discussions were potentially widespread and that prisoners were not provided with written reasons for decisions or sufficient information on the charge, which resulted in procedural injustice.

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He identified a lack of discretion in the transmission of minor infractions to a formal disciplinary process, which increased the burden on prisons, the warden and inmates.

The report, by Ombudsman Deborah Glass, found little improvement since the system was last overhauled in 2011.

Undocumented pre-hearing discussions were potentially widespread and detainees did not receive written reasons for decisions or sufficient information about the charge, resulting in procedural injustice.  Photo: Zak Simmonds
Undocumented pre-hearing discussions were potentially widespread and detainees did not receive written reasons for decisions or sufficient information about the charge, resulting in procedural injustice. Photo: Zak Simmonds

Ms Glass said hearings have always been conducted in the dark with insufficient control, oversight and transparency.

“Fairness for prisoners may not be a popular topic, but its absence damages our reputation as a civilized society,” Ms. Glass said.

“Although we have observed some good practices and decisions, the potential for injustice is still present. “

The investigation uncovered a systemic injustice in the system, including the treatment of a suicidal prisoner who was charged with apologizing after resisting a strip search while being transferred to a cell in observation.

Ombudsman Deborah Glass said changes were needed to make the system fairer.  Photo: David Crosling
Ombudsman Deborah Glass said changes were needed to make the system fairer. Photo: David Crosling
Ms Glass said hearing officers sometimes did not take prisoners' intellectual disabilities into account when awarding fines.  Photo: Zak Simmonds
Ms Glass said hearing officers sometimes did not take prisoners’ intellectual disabilities into account when awarding fines. Photo: Zak Simmonds

He also revealed that a prison guard allegedly denied a behind-the-scenes offer to a prisoner, after telling him that he would not be removed from the methadone program if he pleaded guilty.

Inmates convicted at court hearings may lose parole opportunities and may be deprived of other privileges such as phone calls and out-of-cell time, or be prevented from seeing their families.

Ms Glass said hearing officers sometimes did not take prisoners’ intellectual disabilities into account when awarding fines.

Current legislation does not provide any right to review a decision – if an inmate wishes to challenge a decision, their only option is to seek judicial review at the Supreme Court.

Ms Glass said written reasons and internal reviews were essential to good administrative decision-making, and Victoria Corrections should not be afraid to implement its recommendations.

“The recommendations I make in this report would not only increase fairness and transparency in a notoriously opaque process, but they would promote good decision-making,” she said.

The Victorian Ombudsman Investigation of good practices in the conduct of disciplinary hearings in prison was tabled in Parliament today.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Victoria Department of Justice thanked the ombudsman for his report.

“The department has implemented a number of reforms since 2011, including strengthening compliance as well as training its staff and, through Corrections Victoria, is committed to further improvements,” said the spokesperson.

“The cultural review of the prison system that is underway will provide further opportunities for Victoria Corrections to address the issues raised by the Ombudsman.

“It will also ensure that our prison system continues to promote rehabilitation, reduce recidivism and meet the needs of all inmates to ensure that the system improves community safety. “

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