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No Confidence Motion: ACT Minister for Corrections

Thank you, Madam Speaker. It is with disgust that I bring this motion before the Assembly today.

The series of unfortunate events that has led to this point should astound anyone hearing it. I too would be stunned if I hadn’t become desensitised to the government’s incompetent mismanagement of the prison in the short nine months, I have held this portfolio.

In those nine months, we have seen a multitude of failures from this minister in almost all aspects of the prison.

Let’s talk about the serious issues that have occurred that has led us to moving a no confidence motion on the Minister for Corrections, Mick Gentleman. In the last nine months we have seen the detrimental effects of short staffing in our prison through excessive lock-ins and overtime hours[1], we have seen two riots[2], a detainee mistakenly released who then was loose for close to a week[3], the repeatedly delayed rollout of an upgraded database[4], a $20 million bail program that has housed only 44 people[5], unclear policies[6], the sluggish drafting of vitally important policies[7], the deferred Reintegration Centre[8], disproportionate strip searches[9], mass incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders[10] and an escape[11]. I could go on! But we would be here all day.

Now, the motion that I am moving is not the only motion of no confidence that has occurred in the Corrections space recently. Not long after the escape of the detainee, AMC staff, some coming into the AMC off-shift, took a vote of no confidence in a member of management staff. All officers on-duty, and roughly 30 officers off-duty, raised their hands in favour[12].

Clearly, it is not just me that is of the belief that Mick Gentleman and the government has jeopardised the safety of our COs through their careless management of the prison.

In November 2020 the first ever riot at the AMC broke out in devastating fashion resulting in multiple fires, some 27 detainees engaging in aggressive behaviour towards officers, the destruction of an entire accommodation unit of the AMC and $5.7 million worth of property damages[13]. Total recovery from this incident has still not been achieved. The wing can be rebuilt, but we may never know the lasting damage inflicted on the mental health of ACTCS staff.

It is thanks to our corrections officers and also our firefighters, ambulance service and police officers that this disaster wasn’t worse. Only the improvisation and swift organisation of the CO’s prevented the incident from spiralling into a prison-wide riot, because as we know from the Inspector’s survey afterwards, the emergency management training our CO’s had been provided by the government, prior to the riot, was severely deficient. Officers involved on the night of the riot were forthright in saying they were ill-prepared by way of training to deal with a riot. This is reflected in the survey conducted by the Inspector in response to the incident. Only 33% of staff said they were familiar with AMC emergency instructions, only 23% of staff said emergency instructions were clear and only a meagre 9% of staff said that earlier training had been effective in responding to the incident. Lastly, 76% of staff said that they had not participated in a training exercise for a similar incident[14].

This lack of training again reared it’s head, when just a few days later after the riot, a cottage was set ablaze resulting in the loss of 28 beds for several weeks. The fire was so intense that a CO described it in the following way “this fire was so hot that our boots were melting to the tiles and the steel handrails radiated a frightening amount of heat along their entire length”.

All four officer’s who engaged the fire had had their fire refresher training lapsed.

Just in the last month, we have had two more incidents which undermine public confidence in the minister’s ability to do his job effectively. The mistaken release of a detainee before his release date and the dangerous escape of another.

On the 20th of July, Canberra found out that a detainee had been mistakenly released before his release date. This detainee walked free for close to a week. The government blamed “human error” for this incident[15]. Madam Speaker, I reject that claim. This government tried to blame “human error”, they tried using ACTCS staff as a scapegoat for their own failings and I will not stand for it. Our ACTCS staff put themselves in harms way for us daily and for the government to take advantage of that and hide behind them is shameful.

The fault for the mistaken release lies ultimately with the government for not providing the best tools for the job for ACTCS staff.

The government said in relation to the mistaken release that information on AMC detainees was kept on an electronic database and that “Current release processes require manual checks across each of these files”[16]. What they did not say was that the prisons database has extremely limited functionality and was implemented by ACTCS in 2004[17] when it was already considered old having been developed in 1985[18]. ACTCS’s database and recording methods have been criticised since 2011[19]. The auditor-general in 2015[20] said that ACTCS faced challenges in responding to requests for information on detainees. They went on to say “ACTCS officers … emphasised the laborious nature of collating data using ACTCS records systems. The current Inspector said that the current database being used was “probably antiquated when they bought it”[21]. He also said, “it is not easy to interrogate” and that it has “frustrated other reviewers going back for years[22]”. If the previous reviewers, the Auditor-General and the current Inspector have all regarded ACTCS’s record keeping as poor, then I reject the government’s claim that it was human error that led to the mistaken release of the detainee and I instead suggest that it was the government’s fault for forcing its staff to rely upon an “antiquated” system and not providing a more fit-for-purpose system earlier. The multimillion-dollar database upgrade project was supposed to have been implemented by mid-2018[23] but has faced continuous delays and to this day, is still not implemented.

To round out this entire embarrassing episode, the government did not immediately bring the detainee back into custody and instead waited upon the good graces of the detainee as he said he would “try”[24] to hand himself in as soon as possible. Eventually, ACT Policing had to arrest him and compel him to attend court.

This next incident is the most well-known. But more importantly, it placed COs lives in danger and the general public. It generated over a thousand comments on local social media and was even picked up in Illinois[25] and Sri Lanka[26], making this government’s prison management humiliation, truly global.

On their way back from the Canberra Hospital to the AMC, three COs found themselves being attacked by a much larger and heavier vehicle. Taking evasive action, they deviated from their usual route, pursued the whole time. They were forced to run red lights and drive toward oncoming traffic, their vehicle becoming more damaged with every ram as their vehicle was treated like a rag doll in the heart of our city. Eventually the occupants left the vehicle and after a physical altercation between a CO and the detainee, the detainee escaped. Pictures of the vehicle afterwards showed the front bumper mostly detached from the vehicle, significant crumple damage to the right hand side of the car, a shredded front tire, a boot that could no longer close and a ruined rear bumper.

Reading through comments from the public, the vast majority of whom would be unfamiliar with prison policies, it is clear that they thought it was obvious a Camry was not a suitable vehicle for prisoner escorts. When I compared this to social media commentary on a Facebook page specifically for Corrections Officers, I found the same sorts of comments. CO’s also thought that using a Camry was a bad idea. There was also consternation within these comments that the CO’s in the Camry during the escape were not armed. The Inspector himself found that the Camry was “unsuitable as a general use escort vehicle”[27] and was unclear as to “why an at-risk detainee could not be transported safely in a larger-seat capacity vehicle that would provide more room for the detainee and safe-distancing of staff”[28].

So, use of the Camry as an escort vehicle for prisoners was unanimously declared an irresponsible decision by the broad public, correctional officers and the Inspector, yet for some reason, the minister did not stop its usage even after the Inspector’s review. The minister apparently, knew better.

His decision damns him. There is no one else who is responsible for the continued use of the Camry. The recommendations and findings came out under his watch[29]. This is not the fault of the previous minister, nor is it the fault of ACTCS staff.

His response to the incident damns him further. Or should I say, lack of response.

I understand that the minister will not comment on the security situation surrounding the escape of the detainee. That is entirely appropriate. What the minister can address and attempt to justify is his decision to continue using the Camry. He could inform the public of what measures will be taken to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again, but he has not done this. In fact, there is not a single direct quote from Mr Gentleman about this appalling lapse of security since the incident happened[30]. Where is the responsibility? One could wonder, is there even any point in having the minister resign from his already abandoned post? His absenteeism indicates he has already abandoned the portfolio in spirit.

And perhaps not only in spirit. After assuming the Corrections portfolio and insisting his predecessor did not leave the portfolio in a mess, Mr Gentleman moved quickly to establish an oversight committee for the AMC to develop a “blueprint for change”[31]. At the time, I expressed my misgivings about this idea. I was concerned that it would add an additional layer of bureaucracy and slow improvements at the AMC in what is already a place that changes slowly. I was further concerned that the oversight committee would allow the minister to take a step back from the prison and adopt a hands-off approach. The minister’s recent absence in relation to the prison indicates he is doing just that.

This is a time when the minister needs to be able to point to something, anything, that is going well within the portfolio. So I give him that opportunity. When the minister established this oversight committee, he stated that the committee would “oversee the implementation of accepted recommendations from recent and upcoming reports and inquiries”. I invite the minister to tell the Assembly what his committee has done. Can the minister tell us exactly which recommendations have been implemented by the Committee and when they were implemented?

The negative news coming out of the prison has been steadily building up for years. This government has turned what could’ve been a shining example of progress and rehabilitation into a quagmire where detainees wallow, and many who leave with nothing to show, are sucked back in.

In a place where the government should have the most control and the most opportunity to enact their vision, they are failing miserably. They have no excuse and there is no outside force they can shift responsibility onto. The buck stops with the minister and he is accountable.

I may be the one speaking now and I may be one of the more vocal critics of the minister, but I am not the only one the minister is accountable to. He is accountable to ACTCS staff as well. He owes it to them to ensure they have a safe work environment, high job satisfaction and the opportunity to learn new skills. He is accountable to detainees to ensure they are afforded every self-improvement opportunity the government can find. He is also accountable to the taxpayer who recognises the need for some people to be locked up for the safety of the community but who also expect that the money they pay into the Corrections system is an investment in people who they want to see better their lives and become productive members of society.

Lastly, I want to mention a group that I think are often forgotten.

He is accountable to the COs families and loved ones. Everyone that goes to work has the right to come home safely. Everyone has the right to know that when they say goodbye to their loved ones, they will see them home safe again. The minister disrespects them by not placing the safety of their loved ones as a priority.

I speak now to the ACT Greens.

The Parliamentary Agreement for the 9th Legislative Assembly lays out three specific circumstances where the Greens can support a motion of no-confidence[32]. These include instances of proven corruption, gross negligence or significant non-adherence to this agreement of the Minister Code of Conduct.

In the Parliamentary Agreement for this Assembly, the circumstances have been expanded[33]. I assume this wasn’t Labor’s idea. My hope is that this occurred because the Greens wanted more freedom to hold this government to account. They can support a motion of no confidence put forward by the Opposition where the government engages in conduct that threatens public confidence in the integrity of the government or public administration.

The failures of this minister, crowned by the very public escape of an inmate, has threatened and does threaten public confidence in the integrity of this government and its administration of the prison. I believe you would be hard pressed to find anyone in Canberra who keeps a close eye on the news that is confident the government is effectively running the prison. I believe that this should suffice as a reason for the Greens to support this motion.

This government must do better, and it starts with Minister Gentleman divesting himself of the corrections portfolio.

Madam Speaker, I commend this motion to the Assembly.

[1] [2] [3] [4] Annual Report Brief 2016 re Coris (found in Corrections folder) [5] [6] recommendation 1 [7] Still no sign of a new Visits policy or Privileges and Incentives policy on the register [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] All the above stats can be see in the Inspectors report on the riot on page 21 [15] [16] [17] Annual Report Brief 2016 re Coris [18] page 85 [19] Finding 13, page 31, [20] p30 [21] page 85 [22] page 85 [23] Annual Report Brief 2016 re Coris [24] [25] [26] [27] page 18 [28] page 18 [29] CTU review came out in November 2020 [30] I need to verify this, but I haven’t been able to find anything. Every comment is from a spokesman from the directorate. [31] [32] [33]


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