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On-site Psychologist for the Alexander Maconochie Centre

Thank you, Madam Speaker. I am pleased to bring this motion before the Assembly today. I do so at the urging of some who have worked their entire careers on the frontline of corrections.

These people are dedicated, brave and incredibly loyal to their colleagues. They do what they do for the people of Canberra, they do it for our city’s most troubled, and they do it for a government that frequently does not act like it respects the work that they do. I speak, of course, of our often-unsung corrections officers and the staff at the AMC.

A typical shift for a corrections officer or CO is 12 hours. For many Canberrans, this would be an exceptionally long day. And for most of us, our days do not look anything like theirs. Corrections officers must be alert and observant the entire time they are on shift. Every interaction with detainees, either unspoken or spoken, could be significant and must be remembered. Officers face potential threats from violent detainees and frequently find themselves threatened and in physical danger. All this can result in constant and substantial mental and emotional strain.

The constant tension of the work environment is punctuated by actual incidents of verbal and physical assault that can lead to long-term mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, long-term anxiety, depression, and risk of suicide. COs work in a very demanding, high-stress environment. They face situations that the majority of us could not. We salute and respect them. This motion is designed to address the mental health risks associated with the realities of working in a correctional facility.

The essential but often-overlooked work of corrections officers is reflected in the scant attention they have received in academic research. There have been comparatively few studies on the mental health of corrections officers, but the ones that do exist – conducted in several nations – all point toward a high level of formal mental illness among their ranks.

I will share some worrying statistics from these studies. In a 2007 Australian study, COs reported higher rates of formal psychological stress claims than any other occupational group, including emergency services. International studies conducted between 2007 and 2019 confirm the findings of this Australian research. Regardless of where they live, COs experience higher than usual psychological distress. In one study, 55 per cent screened positive for a mental disorder. To put this into perspective, the ABS recently reported that 25 per cent of Australians had a mental or behavioural condition.[1]

Even more worrying are statistics on CO suicide rates. In one overseas corrections organisation, the suicide rate was 105 in 100,000 or seven times higher than the national suicide rate of that country.[2] This data corresponds with findings in Australia that also show that correctional officers are at increased risk of suicide.[3]

Bringing the focus back to Canberra, the ACT Inspector of Correctional Services conducted a survey of AMC staff in 2019. This survey asked several questions about employee wellbeing. Responses provide further evidence that this motion is needed.

Eighty-two per cent of respondents stated that they would like increased access to staff stress management training. Seventy-seven per cent said they would like increased access to training for how to deal with PTSD or trauma. Sixty-two per cent wished for confidential links to counsellors or therapists, and 52 per cent wanted better online/digital resources related to health and wellbeing.

Thirty-one per cent of respondents reported that they had accessed the Employee Assistance Program or EAP. This is a good program. For corrections officers, however, the EAP is not as well placed as they would like. COs at the AMC have expressed to me their desire to have on-site counselling that can be accessed shortly after a distressing incident such as a shiv being drawn on them or receiving a death threat. These examples highlight the unique sort of danger present in this working environment.

Research conducted in 2012 suggests that early intervention and counselling can significantly reduce the development of PTSD and depression symptoms. Individuals in the study who experienced physical trauma were given counselling within hours of the incident and showed significantly lower post-traumatic stress reactions than individuals who did not receive counselling.

Interestingly, these studies on the mental health of corrections officers distinguish between the causes of PTSD and depression. PTSD is most strongly associated with physical danger on the job. Depression and anxiety are most strongly associated with low levels of perceived support from the organisation and with low job satisfaction.

In the past nine months there have been numerous examples of the serious physical danger faced by COs in Canberra. The mental distress that this causes can be further exacerbated when COs feel like they should be armed but are not allowed to be.

A former corrections officer recently shared with me the fear that he experiences while going about his daily duties. This officer is afraid to enter the cell of a dangerous detainee who has a history of possessing weapons while in prison. The officer’s fear is amplified by the fact that he has not had adequate training, and he is not allowed to be armed or even wear body armour. This experience must be terrifying, and the pressure it puts on this person’s mental health, immense.

This motion further calls for a review on the policy that governs how staff in the Court Transport Unit are armed during escorts. Video of the recent incident where a detainee escaped custody shows how few options COs have to restrain detainees and prevent escape. It should be emphasised that this dangerous escape occurred during broad daylight in a busy part of Canberra. It was near embassies, a playground, and a school. Arming these COs on escort duty is not purely for their safety but for the safety of the Canberra community.

The report of a recent vote of no-confidence against a member of senior management staff shows that COs feel that they are not supported at work. Again, such feelings are strongly associated in the academic literature with feelings of anxiety and depression.

Given that corrections officers are calling for on-site counselling and that a high percentage of staff at the AMC report a need for more personal mental health training, it would be of great benefit to all these essential public servants to employ and embed a psychologist within the AMC. As well as providing counselling after distressing incidents, a mental health professional would also be able to provide training on positive mental health exercises for managing PTSD and depression.

The introduction of on-site counselling services for AMC staff would not be a difficult task, and the outcome could be massive, including a decrease in general stress levels among staff and an increase in mental health resilience. This would have long-term benefits for the working environment of the prison and for individual staff members in all aspects of their lives.

In summary, we have evidence that indicates that mental health issues are much higher amongst corrections officers than many other occupational groups. We know that the risk of physical and verbal abuse is more prevalent in a prison environment than most other workplaces.

Our corrections officers at the AMC face physical danger daily, which can contribute to PTSD, and many feel unsupported by senior management, which can contribute to anxiety and depression. We know through a survey that a high percentage of AMC staff desire personal mental health training.

I truly believe that there is a need to take better care of our staff at the AMC. It is hard for us here in the chamber to really know what they go through day to day, so it is imperative that we listen to them when they tell us what they need, and what they need are on-site mental health professionals who can counsel them and provide the training that these essential workers have been calling for since 2019.

Madam Speaker, I commend this motion to the Assembly.

[1] [2] [3]

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