Officers use excessive force in remand centres, Ombudsman finds

She said Corrections Victoria had increased the use of body-worn cameras, changed its recruitment process to ensure it hired suitable candidates and was trialling new de-escalation techniques, but problems remained.

loading

Glass said performance management processes still failed to identify or act on patterns of poor officer behaviour, noting there was a culture of silence among remand workers that encouraged officers to lie to protect their peers.

None of the 29 prison officers present during the eight incidents gave evidence against their colleagues in their initial reports. Only one changed the version of events to be critical of a co-worker after being encouraged by a supervisor.

Supervisors at the Metropolitan Remand Center acknowledged there was a culture of silence, where officers were pressured to “never rat on a blue shirt”. However, four officers interviewed by the Ombudsman denied knowing what the phrase meant.

“There is no easy fix for these longstanding and sometimes intractable issues and this report
does not purport to solve them,” the Ombudsman said.

“Its purpose is to expose what is too often hidden behind prison walls and to encourage actions in addition to words, in the interests of everyone’s safety.”

The Ombudsman began investigating the use of force in remand centers in 2019, following reports that a Melbourne Remand Center officer had choked a prisoner in an unmonitored cell the previous year.

The prisoner, referred to in the report as Mr Griffin, claimed he was singled out and taken to a cell by an officer after making a passing comment to his cellmate. He alleged the officer choked him by pressing on his Adam’s apple with both thumbs and slammed him inside the cell.

His cellmate, who wasn’t present during the alleged incident, said the prisoner walked out of the cell with a red neck and told him: “Those dogs choked [and] slammed me.” The officer denied the allegations.

Glass examined the case as part of the investigation and determined it was likely the officer had used unreasonable force.

A separate investigation by the Department of Justice and Community Safety found there wasn’t enough evidence to start a misconduct probe into the officer involved. The matter was referred to Victoria Police, but it closed the file when the prisoner declined to provide a statement.

Glass said allegations of excessive force against prisoners constituted about 31 per cent of matters referred to the watchdog every year by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, but they were usually hard to investigate and substantiate.

“Not only because of a culture of silence but for all kinds of other factors, including prisoners that are very often reluctant to give evidence,” she told The Age.

The Ombudsman received 3,367 complaints about Corrections Victoria in 2020-21. About 3 per cent of those were for improper conduct by prison officers, including instances of misuse of power, bribery and unreasonable use of force.

loading

Data from Corrections Victoria contained in the report shows the Metropolitan Remand Center was the correctional facility with the highest number of “use of force incidents” in the state over the past three years, with 709 recorded incidents in that time.

The center also featured in more than a quarter of the complaints about the use of unreasonable force in prisons to the Ombudsman and a third of all allegations of assault by staff on prisoners received by Corrections Victoria over the past three years.

Glass said reminder centers were challenging workplaces and many of the prisoners involved in the incidents had behaved violently in the past. However, she found the incidents escalated because officers resorted to force instead of defusing the situation.

Glass issued 12 recommendations to improve staff accountability in remand centres, including eliminating CCTV blind spots, reviewing de-escalation training programs, improving the vetting process of officers during recruitment, and developing a centralized system to access information about officer conduct complaints and ongoing investigations.

All but two recommendations have been accepted by the Department of Justice and Community Safety.

The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up here.

Leave a Comment