More Deaths In Custody: Private Prisons Profit from Misery

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George Drinken died at the Port Phillip Prison in Laverton North, Victoria on 30 October 1997. The death at Port Phillip brings the total of deaths in custody in private prisons in Australia to at least 18. The position of State and Territory governments that private prisons would somehow be “better” than State prisons is nothing other than a cruel lie.

Indigenous deaths in custody during 1997 reached the horror levels of 1995, when 21 deaths occurred. In 1996, there were 18 deaths. Nationally, non-Indigenous deaths occur at three times the rate of Indigenous deaths. However, the official figures have to be questioned, because it is in the interests of prison authorities to minimise the number of reported deaths in institutions. Deaths in police custody, including high-speed chases and shootings, must also be counted. So, too, must other deaths – including those which occur during transfers between institutions and those of judicial detainees in hospitals or psychiatric institutions.

Why must people always die before change is possible? When will the so-called experts take heed of the real experts, the prisoners themselves and their support groups?

Deaths by design. In New South Wales, the Greiner government originally planned the Metropolitan Reception and Remand Centre (MRRC), a “900 bed unit” as it is described, to be the state’s second – and largest – private prison. (Junee, holding up to 600 inmates, was the first.) Later, the Carr government decided to revert the jail to state control, while retaining many of its private sector features. The exercise yards in the MRRC segregation area will be the smallest exercise yards in NSW. A centre that is lauded as being at the cutting edge of penal “philosophy” is sadly, but unsurprisingly, still built with punishment as its aim.

Prior to the commissioning of the MRRC, the Criminal Justice Coalition, of which the Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA) is a participant, argued strongly that there were too many obvious hanging points in all the normal cells.

The general manager scoffed at the claims that such hanging points would be utilised, especially the shower rails. The MRRC was opened for “business” in November 1997. Two hanging deaths have already occurred – using the shower rails in the cells! The general manager has now given assurances that at “great expense” the shower rails will be replaced with a design that will not hold the weight of a body.

Since 31 May 1989, there have been at least 40 Indigenous deaths by hanging, and yet prisons still have obvious hanging points. On this issue, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody made two recommendations. These were: recommendation 122 – “that police services, corrective services and authorities in charge of juvenile justice centres recognise that they owe a legal duty of care to prisoners in their custody;” and recommendation 165, which sets out the parameters within which prison authorities should “carefully scrutinise equipment or facilities at an institution with a view to eliminating and/or reducing the potential for harm.” Similarly, steps should be taken to screen hanging points in police and prison cells.

Despite this, NSW still refuses to remove the horizontal bars from its jails, arguing that for the older prisons there is a “heritage value” to the bars, or that it is too costly. After a hanging death at Bathurst prison, the Department of Corrective Services finally did remove the “heating rails” from those cells that still had them. They were replaced with strip bar heaters, on racks that reportedly would not support normal body weight.

The new Port Phillip private prison was built with six horizontal bars on the inside of each cell window in 580 of the cells, as were 490 cells at Victoria’s Fulham Private Correctional Centre. After George Drinken died, the manager of Port Phillip Prison cynically remarked that he would remove the bars – if someone would provide the necessary $400,000 to do so!

Wilful ignorance. When will the authorities really attempt to eliminate all deaths in custody? For far too long, organisations across the country – both black and white – have been attempting to educate Corrective Services officials on how to properly implement, at the very least, Royal Commission recommendations 122 and 165. But we’ve been talking with those who will not hear, and who will not act, leaving us only with too many sad statistics.

It must be the aim of all of us to eliminate the unnecessary loss of life in judicial custody – most deaths in penal institutions simply should not happen. Custodial staff, including medical and psychiatric staff, must fully accept that they have a common law duty of care to inmates – all inmates.

George Drinken’s death sadly reflects the deadly ignorance of the administrators of Australia’s custodial systems, both private and public. Deaths in custody will continue while we have prisons, watch houses and juvenile detention centres. Compulsory sentencing, “zero-tolerance” policing and public drunkenness laws have filled jails across the country with the poor, the homeless, the drug-addicted – and have resulted in a huge over-representation of Indigenous people. Making criminals of society’s most vulnerable keeps the poor in their place and the streets “safe” for business.

A miserable system. If there is one word which sums up the prison system in Australia, it is “misery.” Not only the obvious misery of people locked away in cages of concrete, steel and glass. It’s also the miserable attitudes of prison authorities who see punishment of the victims of social ills as a cure for those ills. Most of all, it’s the miserly policies of governments which continue to spend the barest minimum needed to keep the system operating.

Privatisation of prisons, police, or any other custodial organisations is definitely not the answer. As private operators seek to maximise their income from government subsidies, even less would be spent on rehabilitation, health and the prevention of deaths in custody.

Opening custodial institutions to full public scrutiny, and especially to groups aimed at supporting people detained in judicial custody, is one way to immediately lessen the suffering and reduce death rates. Such groups are only interested in saving lives – not in making profit from the public misery.

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