The Guardian October 11, 2000


Victorian Government takes over private prison

by Andrew Jackson

Last week the Bracks Government took the first vital step in reforming 
Victoria's prison system by taking control of the Metropolitan Women's 
Correctional Centre at Deer Park from private enterprise.

The move comes after a year of damning reports on the prison. In the most 
recent, Correctional Services Commissioner Penny Armytage said there were 
"wide-ranging and persistent failures" in delivering core services and that 
she was "highly sceptical of their ability to deliver a satisfactory 
service."

However, Corrections Corporation of Australia (CCA) has sought legal advice 
and is threatening the Vic Government with costly legal action over the 
termination of its 20-year contract after only four years.

The managing director of CCA says the company has been victimised.

In a statement issued in response to their sacking, Terry Lawson said 
"there is no reason for the government to claim step-in rights. There is no 
emergency and the prison is operating efficiently and peacefully."

The Victorian Minister for Corrections Andrew Haermeyer insisted the move 
was justified as "The operator was given repeated opportunities to fix the 
problems and meet its contractual obligations, but failed to adequately 
respond to verbal and written warnings and three default notices."

The government has issued three default notices to the prison this year, on 
May 10 and 19, and again on July 18, raising nine areas where the private 
operator was non-compliant with contractual obligations.

At the time the government revoked CCA's management contract it found they 
remained in breach of five  inadequate staffing levels, lack of proper 
security measures, failure to control illicit drug problems, suicide 
management and excessive lockdowns.

A spokesman from the Community and Public Sector Union, which represents 
prison officers at the Deer Park facility applauded the move. "For many 
years now the jail has run at staffing levels which haven't been able to 
support the number of women that have been incarcerated", he said.

The prisoner/staff ratio was often 30 to 1, which left prison officers 
"stressed to the max", and also meant that prisoners were being denied 
access to basic prison programs as a result.

The move has also been hailed by legal, community and church groups.

Amanda George, of the Federation of Community Legal Centres cited the 
safety of the prisoners as a major concern. Almost 25 per cent of Deer Park 
inmates were kept in protection units, compared with an average of two per 
cent in other states.

"So much damage has been done that it is going to be very hard to turn it 
around. They are going to need to pour enormous resources into the prison 
to make the women feel safe in a prison that is reeling with violence", 
said Ms George.

Kate Lawrence, of the North Melbourne legal Service says, "the physical and 
psychological damage to women prisoners over the past four years is 
enormous. Sadly for two women  Cheryl Black and Paula Richardson, who 
have died in the prison  the changes have come too late."

Taking the prison back into public hands has reignited the debate over the 
morality of putting prisoners of the state at the mercy of private 
corporations.

Private operators then have a financial stake in continuing and even 
increasing rates of imprisonment, and around the world the British and US 
companies that manage Australia's facilities lobby hard for tougher "law 
and order" measures in communities, and harsher sentencing regimes.

Prisoners lives are, and must remain a public responsibility rather than 
private property.

Back to index page