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Return All Day Visits

The Department of Corrective Service has unexpectedly withdrawn traditional “all day visits” for family and friends visiting the women in Emu Plains.

This has affected the children who relied upon that contact with their mothers. Children of prisoners are six times as likely to have mental health problems.

In the Budget Estimates hearing 28 August 2006, the Department was asked detailed questions on the issue and misled Parliament in their answers. The Department falsely claimed that prisoners and their families asked for and supported the changes as being in the best interests of their children. In fact the opposite is true and the Department attempted to intimidate the mothers into not exposing the lies.
On 7 September in an Adjournment speech to Parliament, Peter Breen discussed the increasing number of prisoners in NSW jails, and staff shortages that have led to the removal of all day visits.

The new restriction on visits are already straining family and community ties and will make it harder for women prisoners to escape the cycle of offending and imprisonment.

BACKGROUND
Emu Plains Correctional Centre for women is a low security prison. There is a Mothers & Children program housed in the Jacaranda Cottages that form part of the main complex. All women have to be a C2 classification (i.e. considered a ‘low risk’) to be accepted at the centre including the main complex. Emu Plains became a women’s prison in 1996, and has always had all day visits every weekend and public holidays.

Throughout this 10-year period women would purposefully try to be classified low risk and moved to Emu Plains so that they could spend time with their children, family and friends. This is considered essential for the well-being of the women as they move towards their eventual release from prison. The majority of women in prison are mothers and therefore rely heavily on visits to maintain the bond and contact with their children.

During the all day visits the local Rotary club put on a BBQ lunch for the visitors and the women in prison, with the money raised going towards local community projects. This worked well for all concerned. Many families and visitors live long distances from Emu Plains prison. On arrival at the centre, they were confident of having ample time for their visit.

CHANGED POLICY
The new General Manager, who began at Emu Plains prison late 2005, posted a notice in May 2006 in the visiting section and within the prison. It notified the women visitors that visits would change from ‘all day’ visits to ‘split visits’. This meant visits would start at 8.30am to 11.30am, then break and then go from 12.30pm to 3.30pm. The reason given for this change was “Visits will be closed from 11.30am to 12.30pm to allow visitors to have lunch.” This change was implemented without consulting any prisoners, family or friends, or any local support groups. It has had an enormous effect from the women in prison, as well as the family and friends who visit.

Visitors were having lunch - with prisoners. By shutting out visitors, some without transport, into an isolated part of Western Sydney in the middle of the day, DCS is actually preventing them from having lunch as there are no facilities nearby.

The Inmate Development Committee representing the women, were told “the change to visits is a trial to bring this prison into line with other prisons and no further discussion will be entered into about it”. On the weekend of July 29-30, visitors who attended Emu Plains prison were informed that in the very near future, visits would have to be booked by phoning the prison and, if successful in booking a visit, the visit would be limited to a maximum of 2 hours.

Phone call contact that women in prison can have with their children & families has also been changed. The time limit was for 15 minutes, with a 5 min bar until another call can be made. Now the phone calls are limited to 10 minutes duration with a 30 minute bar before another call can be made. This does not provide enough time for the women in prison to engage in any meaningful conversations and develop and maintain strong ties with family, friends and communities.

EFFECTS
The Department of Corrective Services’ own research states that one of the most important factors for helping women stay out of prison is having strong support upon their release.

Visitors have to line up and take a ticket and have to wait sometimes over an hour and a half to be processed to get in. Soon the visits will be restricted even further to booked visits, which is the normal procedure for a maximum-security prison. That means some visits won’t happen at all, as the arrangements are over booked or not arranged properly.

These changes result in reduced contact between visitors and the women, making the short time available tense and unsatisfying for everyone.

LIES TO PARLIAMENT/BUDGET ESTIMATES HEARING
During the Estimates Committee hearing on 28 August 2006 under oath, politicians asked Justice Minister Tony Kelly and his three top Departmental officers questions about Emu Plains. Asst Commissioner McLean and Asst Dep. Commissioner Luke Grant said: (pages 35, 36 and 56) “By splitting the full day visits into two three-hour visits, children visiting inmates will be able to spend more time having a proper lunch. That was of concern previous to this change.” “This was discussed with the Inmate Development Committee (IDC)…on at least two occasions before the implementation of the split visits on 21 May 2006.” “No objections were raised by the Inmate Development Committee or inmates…” “…consensus of that committee was that this was a better system…” “through the IDC, it has been proven by the follow-up and the monitoring of it to date that it certainly a lot better.”

That is totally untrue. Women at Emu Plains have complained and in an attempt to stop these complaints, the management at the Jail have employed tactics of intimidation.

The need for visitors to have a proper lunch was also untrue as a BBQ was provided by Rotary, who have confirmed this was in place until the full day visits ceased.

INTIMIDATION OF FAMILIES AND PRISONERS
Since the implementation of the split visits in May 2006, many visitors have written to the General Manager complaining of the negative effects both on the visitors and the women in prison. Many visitors and prisoners have also complained orally to officers at the prison. The written complaints have not been responded to and the oral complaints have got responses such as, “keep complaining and it will only get worse.” Families and prisoners at Emu Plains wanted to voice their opposition to the changes but they and their families and representatives had been bullied into silence.

They asked Justice Action to help them. JA gathered information and confirmed the changes. An information leaflet was prepared for feedback to the Minister and “presentation to Parliament.”

A member of Justice Action visited a prisoner on August 5. He spoke with other visitors and gave them the leaflet. He was notified 5 days later that he was banned for two years for “fomenting disharmony and conflict,” “causing dissension” and “confrontation” “inciting visitors by the misleading, inaccurate and uninformed handouts” and “been “warned on numerous occasions.” When he asked when he had been warned and how the document was inaccurate he was told 29/8 that a “semantic discussion” would not be entered into.

THE PRISONER CONSULTATION
JA sent a letter (25/8) to each of the 177 prisoners by name by registered post suggesting they and their visitors make their views known to the Minister, either directly or through JA anonymously.

The following report was supplied from the women: “During the week all the girls in the compound were asked to go to visits as the GM had an announcement. She walked out with a big garbage bag of letters and said these letters are from JA - as you can see I have not opened them. There is a letter addressed to each of you. This has disturbed me quite a bit as I have come from meetings with the Ombudsman and Official Visitors of this jail, enquiring as to who has complained and why. After going through every phone call made to the Ombudsman, I was quite content that these complaints about visits were coming more from the outside and not you girls. I would be very disappointed if any of you were to complain!”

Women at Emu Plains have been forced to break the law to ensure that their position is known to the outside. They have smuggled out letters as they knew their complaints would affect their personal situation badly.


PRISONERS’ RESPONSE
One of the letters received said:

“To Justice Action,
Firstly, I would like to thank-you for the concern you have shown and the support we inmates are receiving from your organisation.

I have been an inmate here for nearly _ years and have previously been in the system before. E.P.C.C. was a very sympathetic and understanding institution where inmates were permitted to have family contact in a pleasant and casual environment. Visits were open all day on the weekends and there were no stipulations on the time factor.

When my family came (_adults and _ children) we had no concern of our visit finishing – we were comfortable knowing that we had plenty of time to relax and enjoy each others company.

We were able to purchase lunch and have a meal together as a family. This created such normality and my _ was happy that she could buy me something, even if it was just a steak sandwich or sausage sandwich.

Spending time with my children, playing in the playground gave me strength for another week and calmed them considerable as they saw that I was coping and surviving behind bars.

Having broken visits has created a lot of unnecessary anger and upset. After visiting me for an hour in the morning session, my kids become very upset that they have to leave so quickly. Then they have to go through the lengthy process of re-entering again and wasting another hour waiting in line to enter again.

I have been listening to the complaints of other inmates where old parents catch public transport. It takes them ages to arrive at E.P.C.C. and then they end up waiting due to the congestion at reception. Before they know it the session is over so they have to walk to the main road, sit and wait until the afternoon session begins. They don’t have transport to drive to a take-away and buy some lunch, so they go without. Then again the whole process of re-registering and waiting up to one and a half hours to enter.

Why change a system that has been successful for many years? Why the need to introduce a system that goes against all human reasoning? Why put our families through more stress and unhappiness, when visits should be a happy, pleasant stress-free time?

Haven’t our families suffered enough? They end up doing our jail with us. Every time they walk out those doors and leave us behind they suffer quietly. Why does the system need to inflict more pain on them and minimise our visiting time with our family and friends?

Please help us to re-introduce our full day visits with an opportunity to have lunch with our loved one.

Thank you.

Signed


COMMUNITY/POLITICIANS RESPONSES

NSW Legislative Council Hansard, 7 September 2006 - PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES PRISON POPULATION

The Hon. PETER BREEN [5.19 p.m.]: I take this opportunity to bring to the attention of the House the difficulties faced by prisoners in New South Wales as a result of staff shortages and inadequate funding. New South Wales has an incarceration rate per head of population double that of Victoria because we lack the imagination to devise diversionary programs and the political will to help our prisoners recover their lives. The prison population has been increasing at around 400 prisoners annually, which means that we need to build one gaol each year just to keep pace with the increase. Needless to say, we cannot afford capital works on such a scale so we make cuts elsewhere in order to cope with the expanding prison population. Inevitably, it is the prisoners who bear the brunt of cuts, with more lockdowns, fewer education and training programs, and tighter restrictions on out-of-cell activities.

Last month I received a letter from a prisoner at Lithgow Correctional Complex who informed me that he had been in lockdown for more than 100 days in the past three years. Under the sensible and compassionate arrangements that exist in Victoria, for example, this modern form of solitary confinement would entitle the prisoner to one year's remission on his sentence. In New South Wales, however, remissions for government-inflicted cruelty are a thing of the past. It is hardly surprising that we are failing to rehabilitate our prisoners and that more than half of them re-offend and return to prison within five years. The cost to the community—particularly to the victims of crime—of our lack of care towards prisoners is a matter of great concern. As well as the obvious accommodation cost for prisoners—which is now running at around $200,0000 per year for some prisoners—the cost of re-offending is incalculable for the victims of crime.

Last year the Department of Corrective Services introduced a further cost-cutting measure by splitting all-day visits into morning and afternoon visits. The change is designed to suit the convenience of staff rosters and allows prison management between one and two hours in the middle of the day to make up for staff shortages. One direct consequence of this new roster arrangement has been an increase in lockdowns. Another consequence is more hurdles and hoops for families and friends of visitors. At Emu Plains prison, for example, the reason given for the policy change to provide an extra hour in the middle of the day for staff shortages was "to allow visitors to have lunch". Of course, this statement is arrant nonsense, since prior to the change prisoners had lunch with their visitors. Now the visitors are put out of the prison at lunchtime, and prisoners and visitors have separate arrangements for lunch.

The department labelled the changes at Emu Plains a trial but, like the so-called trial for visitors terminating their visits in order to go to the toilet, the new arrangements for visitors to lunch outside the prison is better described as a tribulation than a trial. I have never seen the results of any Corrective Services trial—but that is another story. The bottom line is that the department has withdrawn traditional all-day visits for families and friends of the women inmates at Emu Plains. Often the visitors are the women's children and they simply go home during the lunch break, thus denying mothers important contact with their families.

Officers of the department were asked questions about the visiting arrangements at Emu Plains during a budget estimates hearing on 28 August. A casual reader of the transcript of these proceedings might think the officers misled Parliament when they said the prisoners and their families asked for and supported the changes to visiting arrangements at Emu Plains. The officers also said the new arrangements were in the best interests of the children. The local Rotary club traditionally put on a barbeque lunch for the 177 women inmates and their family visitors, so it is difficult to know how the children would benefit from terminating such an arrangement. A number of members of this House have complained to the Minister for Justice about the new visiting arrangements at Emu Plains prison. In a letter the President of the Legislative Council, the Hon. Meredith Burgmann, said:

We fought for many years for this type of facility [for women inmates] … It would be a sad situation if the children stop visiting regularly and their families suffered as a direct result of these changes.

Members in the other place who have voiced their concerns include Clover Moore, Paul Lynch, Linda Burney, Noreen Hay and the Minister for Women, Sandra Nori. Justice Action wrote to the Minister on 30 August suggesting the establishment of a community panel to oversee the reinstatement of full-day visits at Emu Plains. This community panel could give inmates an opportunity to have some input into the arrangements. I urge the Minister to respond to the community action that is mounting in response to the situation at Emu Plains and to support the women inmates by taking appropriate action to restore all-day visits.
(end speech)

This is what some other members of parliament have had to say about the changes:

Clover Moore MP: “…85% of women prisoners are mothers, and the majority have primary responsibility for raising children before incarceration.” “…the strength of the mother-child bond is the most significant indicator of recidivism for females with children.”

Paul Lynch MP: “(This change) is allegedly on the basis that the visitors need to be allowed to have lunch. Such a rationale is of course preposterous.”

Some other individual and organizations who have written to the Minister are: Sandra Nori Minister for Women, Linda Burney MP, Noreen Hay MP, YWCA Canberra, Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, Women’s Legal Centre (ACT), Dr Deb Foskey MLA.


REQUEST TO MINISTER
Justice action asked the Minister to immediately reinstate full day visits and set up a community panel.

It said (letter 30/8/06)
“ In light of those comments to Parliament we propose a community panel comprising a politician, a member of the Commissioner's Women Advisory Committee (WAC), a representative of Justice Action and yourself meet with the members of the Inmate Development Committee (IDC) to clarify the position of prisoners at Emu Plains and to ensure Parliament has not been misled. It is important that prisoners are allowed the opportunity to clarify their position as your officers claim these changes to visits have occurred because the women at Emu Plains want them.

Prisoners and their families have expressed grave concerns that they will be punished by removal of their "C" classification and access to their children if they object to this attack on their existing conditions. The meeting with the IDC should be sensitive to this concern.

The community panel could also work with the women prisoners, their families and staff to ensure the visiting system is the best possible. This would bring benefit to the wider community, through less women coming back to jail due to the improved family and community relationships that are established.”

 

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