Dr WOODRUFF question to MINISTER for CORRECTIONS, Ms ARCHER
The Greens take COVID-19 and community safety very seriously which is why the Leader of the Greens, Cassy O'Connor is not in parliament today. She was feeling unwell yesterday, and she did what thousands of other Tasmanians are doing: she got tested, it is negative, and she will be returning to this Chamber shortly.
Minister, the Custodial Inspector's report tabled in parliament on Thursday was a scathing review of Tasmania's prison system and the impact upon prisoners of lockdowns. Last December there were more than 600 lockdowns across the state's prisons. Almost 400 were in maximum security, where capacity is at 117 per cent, often over consecutive days preventing inmates from accessing health care, drug therapy and legal advice. These lockdowns are not only in breach of your own Corrections Act, but they contravene the United Nations' Nelson Mandela rules, the convention on the rights of the minimum regulations for prisoner treatment.
Lockdowns have been occurring regularly and increasingly on your watch to the point where they have become an international human rights issue. How can you explain breaching your own state law and UN conventions? Repeated lengthy lockdowns deprive prisoners of basic human rights and should not be standard practice. They also produce combustible prison conditions. Will you commit to minimum UN human rights standards for prisoners and to compliance with your own rules immediately?
Mr Speaker, I welcome the question from the member of Franklin, Dr Woodruff, because I would like to make sure the facts on this are correct and on the record.
Dr Woodruff - You are disputing the Custodial Inspector's report.
Ms ARCHER - Given you have asked a question, and you have made some pretty damning allegations, Dr Woodruff, I would like to address the question.
Mr SPEAKER - Order, the question has been put. The minister should have the opportunity to answer those questions without interruption.
Ms ARCHER - Thank you, Mr Speaker. The reporting of these matters makes it sound like every prisoner is locked down for 23 hours a day every day of the week. That is far from the truth and I must correct the record -
Dr Woodruff - That is not correct.
Ms ARCHER - That is far from the truth and I must correct the record -
Dr Woodruff - It is what the Custodial Inspector said.
Mr SPEAKER - Order.
Ms ARCHER - The average hours of self- and secure custody across Australia in the latest Report on Government Services, or ROGS, data is 8.9 hours per day. The TPS exceeded this average every month except one month over the past six months. This failed to be acknowledged in the report; in fact, the report was simply a snapshot from December last year. The reality is that in the majority of cases when there is a lockdown it only impacts on a small portion of the prison population, and I will explain that. The majority of prisoners continue to have access to televisions and in-cell radios, books, educational materials and other activities.
Dr Woodruff - Not if you are in maximum security.
Mr SPEAKER - Member for Franklin, you have asked the question and I would appreciate if you allow the minister a chance to answer. If interjections continue the same result as last week may eventuate.
Ms ARCHER - Thank you, Mr Speaker. In most instances prisoners will not be confined within their cells during a lockdown but within their accommodation units or divisions where they are free to move around amongst each other and the entire unit or division. The units within the prison that tend to be locked most often I can acknowledge are the units which house the most high-risk, maximum-security prisoners whose behaviour whilst in prison is very difficult to manage safely, particularly for the staff involved. Again, the reporting, in isolation, fails to recognise this reality.
The Tasmanian Government notes the Custodial Inspector's review into lockdowns. Our top priority is to keep Tasmanians safe. The Custodial Inspector notes that lockdowns are a necessary and unavoidable part of the prison system, being used when required to ensure a safe and secure prison environment for prisoners, staff and visitors.
We acknowledge that spending more time out of cells is an important part of prison rehabilitation. I am pleased to indicate that the Department of Justice supports all the recommendations in the draft review, with all but one listed as an existing initiative. This clearly demonstrates that the department and Custodial Inspector are largely in agreement with the required approach to improve time out of cells for prisoners in Tasmania. This is why the Tasmanian Prison Service has dedicated staff working directly with the Custodial Inspector on matters he raises. This is quite a new initiative and it is working well.
Prison management continues to explore a variety of other strategies to minimise the likelihood of lockdowns in Tasmanian prison facilities and takes a planned and structured approach to the use of lockdowns to minimise their effects as best as possible. Importantly, we have recruited heavily in correctional officers since coming to government, with over 200 additional correctional officers employed in our prison system since 2016.
Dr WOODRUFF - Point of order, Mr Speaker, under standing order 45, relevance. This is very interesting detail but I asked a simple question: whether the minister would comply with her own law and the United Nations conventions.
Mr SPEAKER - Thank you, a point of order is not to ask the same question or repeat the question. There was certainly a lengthy preamble that went with the question and I allowed that. I will allow the minister to answer it as she wishes.
Ms ARCHER - Mr Speaker, it is relevant because this is not only about community safety but staff safety and other prisoner safety within the prison. We have a cohort of prisoners in maximum security who are endangering not only themselves but other prisoners and indeed staff, and that is a top priority.
I need to demonstrate the work the Government is doing to recruit additional correction officers. As I said, there were 200 additional including 75 in the last year alone despite COVID 19, with at least two new recruitments planned this year and the first of those underway now. This is recruitment never seen at the rate we are seeing currently and, contrary to unfounded cheap shots by those opposite to suggest that for every correctional officer put on, one leaves, is factually incorrect. Our recruitment is at a rate never seen before and we continue to recruit as fast as we can.
Under our Government there has been considerable investment in the Tasmanian Prison Service. We remain committed to addressing challenges within the prison service. That is why we are upgrading and building the necessary infrastructure as well as recruiting staff at a rate never seen before. We are doing everything possible to address this from the Government's perspective in terms of investment in infrastructure and staff, and my department is working with the Custodial Inspector to ensure that we address all those recommendations which, I note, have been accepted by the department.