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Corrections – Prison Assaults and Time in Cells

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Tags: Prisons, Corrections

Dr WOODRUFF - When your Liberal Government came into power in 2014, the rate of assaults between prisoners per 100 prisoners was 0.64. By 2018, it had increased to 1.3. In 2018 19, the latest figures we have, it is now 1.99. These are for prisoners on prisoners. Things are going backwards under your watch. There is no doubt about it. The evidence shows it, and violence is increasing in our prisons. The rate of violence between prisoners has increased nearly fourfold since your Government took office.

What is going wrong, and what can you do to address this immediately?

Ms ARCHER - I wouldn't characterise it as what is going wrong. The reality is that there is increasing population -

Dr WOODRUFF - Increasing violence is wrong. Surely we can agree on that?

Ms ARCHER - You didn't say that.

Dr WOODRUFF - It is increasing violence between prisoners.

Ms ARCHER - I will say, at the outset, assaults in any environment are totally unacceptable, and prison is no different.

Prisoner on prisoner assaults - there is no doubt that is challenging. It is a difficult situation to deal with. That is why we make sure the correctional officers have their required training to sufficiently deal with that.

There is - and this is the foundation for some pressure points - an increase in the prison population, which we see occurring as a national trend.

Dr WOODRUFF - Especially in Tasmania.

Ms ARCHER - What we should remember, when we look at data, are the different classifications. So, you have serious assault, you have an assault, you have other types of assaults.

So, a serious assault is defined as one requiring overnight hospitalisation, or ongoing medical treatment, or any sexual assault.

An assault, the next level down, is defined as an act of physical violence resulting in physical injuries.

Other assault categories, the third category, is defined as an act of physical violence that did not result in a physical injury. There might be spitting, or pushing, but that doesn't result in an injury.

When we look at statistics in relation to assaults, yes they appear to be high, but you can see the difference in the nature of those. I always like to get that on record, because it is very easy to see 'other assaults' as something where there is a large number, and that is behaviour that is quite commonplace throughout the prison. I just draw your attention to that difference.

Dr WOODRUFF - You aren't disputing the fact that it has gone up.

Ms ARCHER - No. Of course I wouldn't dispute that, but in comparing these figures, it should also be noted that the number of prisoners in custody has risen significantly, as I said, from 2016 17, with an increase from a daily average of 575, to a daily average of 664 in 2019 20.

The higher prisoner numbers will affect the overall rates of assaults, of course, as will the need to accommodate the increasing prisoner population, without a comparable increase in infrastructure of prisoner accommodation.

Of course, there are all of sorts of strategies that are put in place in prison that Mr Thomas can talk to, trying to ensure there are fewer assaults, and educating prisoners in how they can best deal with their own disputes, and why these disputes arise. But unfortunately, they will still arise among some cohorts of prisoners.

It might be useful for Mr Thomas to explain how some of these assaults occur, because he is seeing this, and I think it is all too easy to look at the data and not have a true understanding of what really goes on in the prison environment.

Dr WOODRUFF - The question was about why they occur, not what happens. We know that there is lots of violence, but the question is why it is happening.

CHAIR -Ms ARCHER - And I am referring that question. I think Mr Thomas is an expert in this area because he works in the prison.

Mr THOMAS - There is a whole raft of reasons why assaults will occur in prisons.

Association issues - prisoners will stand over, or bully, other prisoners for items, including, at times, contraband.

When you do the examinations, one of the standout issues is that a lot of assaults that occur in prison aren't actually related to imprisonment. It's actually the fact that you've put them in a confined space, where it's much easier for them to carry out those types of behaviours than it would be in society. Hence we run protection regimes for prisoners who identify or volunteer that they are at risk, and they want to be protected from people who are standing over them or attempting to assault them.

We have a fairly sophisticated strategy to address assaults, in the way that we challenge prisoners. All our assaults, particularly serious assaults, are automatically referred to Tasmania Police for further investigation, and a number of prisoners have been successfully prosecuted and faced further time in prison.

I would never sit here and say that you can eradicate assaults from prison. You can't, as you can't in the community, but we don't accept assaults in prison. We take a very dim view of them, we challenge them, and we take the appropriate action to challenge the perpetrator.

Importantly, we also support the victims so they can serve their imprisonment safely and securely.


Dr WOODRUFF - Thank you to the director for that comment. Minister, I don't that there's really a change in the profile or character of prisoners who are in prison. There is a change in the conditions in prison. We all can agree that prison numbers have gone up. You've just said by how much.

At the same time, there's the management of prison numbers. The Report on Government Services 2020 indicates that the average time out of cells in Tasmanian prisons for 2018 19 is the lowest in the country. It was 7.9 hours a day then. I suspect it's worse again this year, and I also know from research and evidence that this is a key factor - not the only one - but a key factor in causing extra stress amongst prisoners, therefore likely to spill over into assaults and aggression.

Can you please tell me what the average time out of cells in Tasmanian prisons is currently?

Ms ARCHER - Before I get to that specific question, I think the director said that it's more about prison conditions. I don't think you can say that holistically at all. The simple reality is, as I've run through earlier today, we have a high number of prisoners who are classified maximum and medium classification, and so we have a higher number of serious offenders than ever before.

With that comes an increased risk of these types of behaviours that the director has gone through.

Dr WOODRUFF - Could you clarify? Are you saying that, proportionally, that's gone up? That proportionally, as the proportion of the prison population, there are more maximum and medium, is that right?

Ms ARCHER - Yes. I think it's safe to say, Mr Thomas, that we now have a higher cohort?

Dr WOODRUFF - We have a higher absolute number.

Ms ARCHER - I've been through that this morning. We have said our pressure points are medium and maximum security, and that's the reason for needing to increase our capacity in that regard.

I'd like to think that every prisoner is capable of rehabilitating. But, from the information I receive on occasions, there will be a subset of existing prisoners who may never rehabilitate, and who have a difficult road ahead.

Dr WOODRUFF - What's the average time out of cells?

Ms ARCHER - We can definitely answer that.

Dr WOODRUFF - Can I put that on notice since we're out of time?

Ms ARCHER - You can certainly put that on notice.

CHAIR -Dr WOODRUFF - I can revisit that then. Thank you.


Dr WOODRUFF - Minister, as well as the increase in assaults between prisoners which has been steadily rising through your government and steadily rising - for the record and for people who are watching or reading Hansard, I have to say that under a Greens Corrections minister, all these rates were far down from what they are today. Since your government came to office, prisoner on officer assaults have also increased dramatically. In 2014 the rate was 1.71 per hundred prisoners. It has now reached 3.22 in the latest figures, from 2018-19. This is in the workplace. They are incredibly worrying numbers. What are you doing to avert the disaster in our prison system, other than building another prison? As we have discussed, this does relate to the increased anxiety on prisoners and stress.

Ms ARCHER - It can contribute to the anxiety and stress of the correctional officers as well and that is our priority to have a safe workplace. It is unacceptable for any correctional staff member to be assaulted while undertaking what is a very important role, not only in their workplace but within our community.

I have acknowledged today and thanked them for their work in a very often high pressure and dangerous situation. As I have gone through today, our pressure points are medium and maximum security so some of them are dealing with the worst and most serious type of offenders, so it is difficult. The risk they are exposed to is much higher in that environment.

I do not accept the premise that it is as a result of our Government. We are experiencing an increase in population and an increase in severity of crime and the type of crime across the nation.

Dr WOODRUFF - None of those things are affected by these figures. They are rates per hundred prisoners.

CHAIR -Ms ARCHER - It is not as easy as saying a few years back, and attributing it to being a Greens Corrections minister.

Dr WOODRUFF - Four years, we brought the rates down.

Ms ARCHER - Four years ago, very different prison environment. All incidents of assault are taken very seriously and there are prisoner disciplinary processes and incidents are reported to Tasmania Police for investigation. They are charged, where appropriate, and often it is the case, unfortunately for them, that until they learn from their offending behaviour it is an extension on their current sentence in a lot of cases.

Correctional officers are trained in negotiation, conflict resolution and use of verbal communication techniques to de-escalate aggression. Officers are also trained in self-defence, in physical restraint techniques. Physical force is used only as last resort. The Government has taken a number or a range of actions to improve safety and security for both staff and prisoners, including additional funding and recruitment of additional correctional officers; having a good staff to prisoner ratio; providing funding to meet -

And you've heard Mr Thomas say in those maximum areas there's a higher ratio -

Providing funding to meet increased demand for rehabilitation and intervention programs, education, therapeutic services -

Which I've touched on today as well -

The allocation of funding to address inadequacies in prison infrastructure and for security improvements at the Ron Barwick Prison and to increase accommodation capacity at Mary Hutchinson Women's Prison.

In addition, significant progress in relation to the development of those new facilities, the Southern Remand and the Northern Regional Correctional Facility options.

It's a holistic approach across the system in terms of infrastructure, staffing therapeutic services, education and training programs. It's all key to having a more settled prison environment. Obviously, we'd like to see reduced numbers. There is a certain role in our community to take on the responsibility in relation to education so we don't have the high incidents of crime and quite serious crime with drug or related offences which often leads to violent offences, sexual offences. Unfortunately, the nature of those are often violent in nature.

It’s the type of crime in our current society and not easy to pinpoint one particular cause. All we can do is respond and in doing so come up with these sound strategies in and outside our prison environment.

Dr WOODRUFF - The average time inmates are being locked up in their cells each day in Tasmania is the worst in the country and I will put on notice the figures or if the Director wants to give them to me now.

Ms ARCHER - We're able to give them to you now.

Dr WOODRUFF - My question is - what strategies are being used in the TPS to increase the amount of time prisoners are out of their cells and what is the Director aiming to achieve?

Ms ARCHER - First, I can say at the outset it is certainly my intention and of the Government to ensure we have as much out of cell time as possible, because that reduces one area of a pressure point that can cause disruption and discontent. I will get the Director to explain the nature of lockdown and specifically answer your questions and when and why they're used.

Mr THOMAS - Thank you, minister. The figures for this year for lockdown overall were 7.1 hours, which you may be aware of, but needs to be broken down further by prison. A good example is prisoners in the O'Hara Cottages semi-independent living who average 16.5 hours out of the cell.

Working through - Ron Barwick was 10 hours; the Risdon Prison Complex was five hours. It is important to recognise depending on the classification type of prisoner we are holding and where they're held will to a degree impact the time they spend out of cell.

Dr WOODRUFF - Excuse me, did you say five hours in Ron Barwick?

Mr THOMAS - No, in Risdon.

The Risdon Prison Complex is the medium/maximum security prison with five hours a day out of the cell - the average for last year.

Dr WOODRUFF - How many inmates are housed there?

Mr THOMAS - About 300 but, again, if I can explain that.

Ms ARCHER - Can you explain what 'out of cell' means.

Mr THOMAS - That doesn't mean every prisoner only got five hours a day out of cell. A lot of those would get more than that. A good example is in medium security where two of those 300 are held - they get longer than that out of cell. The way the reporting rules are designed they're technically classed as 'in cell' - they're actually held in a large space where seven prisoners can associate and engage with each other, they're not locked in a room.

Ms ARCHER - It needs to be understood this doesn't mean in their bedroom cell, locked in a small cell.

Mr THOMAS - There is actually a very small number of our population who are truly locked in a cell when we talk about not being out of cell.

Dr WOODRUFF - One hundred?


Dr WOODRUFF - The maximum security would also -

Mr THOMAS - Again, in maximum security, a number of those prisoners will spend more time in their cell than others, depending on the nature of the accommodation they're being held in while they're being held in it. Typically, prisoners that are in management regimes for their safety or the safety of others will have limited time out of cell and be much more controlled because of the threat they present.

Ms ARCHER - That's typically the Tamar Unit.

Mr THOMAS - Yes.

Dr WOODRUFF - What is the change in numbers of inmates who are placed in solitary confinement? What's the figure now relative to a year ago? What change is there? How many people are placed in solitary confinement?

Mr THOMAS - We will have to take that on notice because I couldn't provide that. The process remains the same. If a prisoner is placed in isolation, there are a number of reasons behind it. If that's because of their behaviour; they're are threats to staff, to other prisoners, to themselves; or for their own protection, they will be isolated while we determine a safe management regime for that prisoner in the prison environment aligning to my earlier response about how we manage incidents.

Ms ARCHER - It's not a punishment.


Dr WOODRUFF - No, I understand. Can I put that question on notice?

Mr THOMAS - Yes, we can certainly provide the statistics.

Dr WOODRUFF - Thank you.