Ms PATTEN — I had never been to a prison, so I only knew what I had seen on television. I had watched Prisoner as a kid; I knew what The Freak was like. So I was very much impressed by the dedication and compassion of those custodial officers. It was clear that they love their jobs. What they were saying to me was, ‘You either stay here for six months or you stay here until you retire’. These people seriously invest in their work, and they obviously have great compassion and dedication to that work. They must be protected from violence, and we must try to make their workplaces as safe as possible.
In fact when you go into the prisons — and I managed to spend the whole day in these two prisons — you realise that sense of community. You realise that in some cases it is almost like a little village in those prisons. There are prisons within prisons, there are different people and there is a different hierarchy in those prisons, and I got a much better understanding of that.
I actually got to speak to a number of the prisoners. Not a single prisoner that I spoke to — and they were very open and honest with me — actually complained about the facilities, and not a single one complained about the prison officers. In fact it was quite the opposite. They said that after the riots — this was at the Metropolitan Remand Centre — the relationships between prison officers and prisoners actually improved in the majority of cases. But what they did express was a great desire for — and this was prison officers and prisoners — greater programs within those prisons. To make those prisons better and safer, they need far better funding for intensive programs within those prisons. They also asked for much better diversion and transitional support outside.
Sitting suspended 6.30 p.m. until 8.03 p.m.
Ms PATTEN — Having been in two prisons last week, I really did get a feel for the work of prison officers and the relationship they have with the prisoners. It is a very difficult balance to find. While the prison officers felt passionate about supporting the prisoners, they also had to ensure their continuing imprisonment, so it is a very difficult balance, and I wonder what this bill will do to those relationships between custodial officers and prisoners. I reiterate that the latter, the prisoners, noted that there had been substantial improvements in relationships between prison officers and prisoners post-riot at the Metropolitan Remand Centre.
I think we need to take some responsibility for these workplaces. In the lead-up to the riots at the remand centre, we banned smoking and we doubled the number of prisoners in the remand centre, so the remand centre, which was built for 600 prisoners, at the time of the riots was holding 1300 prisoners, double the amount that that prison was built for. I wonder, rather than changing parole terms, removing suspended sentencing and not funding community reintegration services, whether that is where the real fault lies. By introducing mandatory sentencing I am not convinced that it is going to reduce crime, nor is it going to make the prison officers’ workplaces any safer. Let us remember what mandatory sentencing costs. It is estimated to cost $270 a day to keep a prisoner, so for two years that is $197 100. That is for a two-year sentence. That is almost $200 000. I wonder whether prison officers would not be safer if we spent that money on better treatment programs, proper housing and possibly even that wild and wacky idea, justice reinvestment.
In terms of custodial officers, while I support the notion of incorporating them into the Crimes Act 1958 and treating them like other emergency services officers such as ambulance drivers and firemen, the relationship and the place of work that a custodial officer is in are quite different. They are not going out there providing a short service; they are dealing very closely with highly stressed individuals in tense and difficult environments. So the difference between a paramedic being subjected to violence while trying to help someone and a custodial officer in a position of power against someone vulnerable to whom they have a duty of care is stark.
On top of that, the relationship between prisoners and prison officers is ongoing. It is not a one-off incident like you would have with fireys or paramedics. Obviously we want everyone to work in a safe workplace, and a number of custodial officers left me filled with admiration, but I think we do need to recognise the different workplace and the different relationship here. I do not see that introducing mandatory sentencing is going to ensure their safety. Drug and alcohol programs, working to improve post-correctional experiences and facilitating those social ties that prevent reoffending, I think, are all sounder ways of protecting custodial officers.
Less miserable, stressed, isolated individuals means less violence. I think one of the most disturbing things that I heard about when I was at the prisons was the apparent desperate recidivism or opportunistic recidivism. Where prisoners were getting out and had nowhere to live or were going back into sexually violent relationships, they had nowhere to go so they were committing crimes to go back to jail because it was the only safe place for them, and this included prisoners who were about to leave. I am certainly going out on a limb here, but if one way to stay in jail is to commit an offence in jail that requires a mandatory sentence, that seems like a kind of easy way rather than going out of jail, finding you have no resources or support and committing another crime that sends you back into jail, where you feel safe and secure.
By introducing mandatory sentences I am interested in how that will affect the relationship between a prison officer and a prisoner, because I think that relationship is very different.
I commend the notion of keeping officers safe, but I worry that mandatory minimums will not do that. I worry that they will actually have quite the opposite effect. I am very supportive of our use of new technologies within the Children’s Court and our use of recordings for appeal processes. I think that is commendable. I hope that we can start working on other ways to reduce the complete overload that our court system is facing in Victoria right now, but as I say, I have considerable concerns about mandatory sentencing.