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Close the HRMU!

Justice Action proposes a community inspection of the unit. This analysis shows why its use should be seen as torture and better ways of dealing with those prisoners in it. supermax info leaflet 204kb

Close the HRMU!

Justice Action proposes an independent, community-based inspection team to examine the 75-cell HRMU at Goulburn Jail. The proposed inspection team would consist of specialist doctors, jurists, Justice health and prisoners’ representatives. These persons are both professionals and highly respected in the community. This proposal follows multiple reports of; arbitrary assignment to the unit, self-harm and mutilation, desperation, hunger strikes, sensory deprivation, psychological damage to prisoners held there, and conditions which fall below levels required under the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Reports from HRMU prisoners

The recent letters referred to in the Sunday Telegraph (7/10/07) from prisoners at the HRMU follow a series of prior complaints.

Reports of ‘tensions’ have come to our attention in the past such as that of one prisoner, who had been banging his head against the wall and nearly severed his fingers by slamming the door on them. This particular prisoner reported that:

This place is purposely built as a basic box in a box. Once our back door is closed there is no natural ventilation and no natural light… The lack of air in cells or claustrophobia are both related to it’s a box and once I feel the walls closing in and I realise there is no air, no openings. Yet I can see air and know its outside the door and that is what causes me to panic as I know I can't get to it.… In other units the ASU or MPU I could always get to the grille and breathe in fresh air and after a few minutes I would feel better, in here one cannot do this.

The most recent letters add to this a series of reasonable complaints, which include:

• Extended removal of phone calls and contact visits
• Under age visitors being subjected to unreasonable and illegal strip searches.
• A lack of access to fresh air and daylight.
• Cells being either much too cold or hot.
• The inappropriate use of safe cells.
• Religious requirements such as the specific dietary requirements of halal food for Muslim inmates are not adequately catered for

Dangers of Segregation Units

Had the Nagle Report’s recommendation been followed, there would be no need for the HRMU to exist. By continuing the philosophy of the ‘box inside a box’, the Department of Corrective Services has in effect encouraged senior prison officers to abandon any attempt to rehabilitate and educate a sub-group of prisoners. If troubling cases can be further removed from the prison population, oversight becomes negligible, and the result is structural and social brutality. Any attempt to use the prison experience to socialise, build community responsibility, and prepare the prisoners for release is abandoned.

Richard Harding, Inspector of Custodial Services in Western Australia acknowledged the inherent dangers involved in a “prison within a prison”:

Whatever form it takes, the treatment of prisoners who are segregated from mainstream accommodation and services is a vital indicator of the health of a prison. From the prisoner perspective, if the experience of being taken “down the back” is seen as little more than the arbitrary and oppressive exercise of authority by line management, great tensions may build up over time. For example, one of the immediate triggers for the riots of 25th December 1998 at Casuarina itself was the decision of officers to take a prisoner to the Special Handling Unit.

Additionally research has indicated that, “the forced idleness and isolation in these [segregation] units cause many previously stable men and women to exhibit signs of serious mental illness” (Kupers 1999 10).

A History of High Risk Management Failure

The current controversy surrounding the conditions at the HRMU in Goulburn is preceded by a history of utter failures in the containment of high-risk prisoners. In light of this the HRMU should never have existed and a social response model such as that of the now closed Special Care Unit (SCU) at Long Bay Correctional Centre promoted. This would have been much more beneficial than the segregation model which has spanned the trajectory of Grafton to the HRMU.

Grafton was opened in 1942, according to the Nagle Royal Commission (1978) “…for the treatment of recalcitrant and intractable prisoners”. The Nagle Royal Commission reported that:

It was urged… that a regime of brutality such as existed at Grafton provided the only effective method of containing and controlling intractable prisoners. According to this argument, it was necessary to inculcate fear into the prisoners from the moment of arrival, and to maintain them in a high state of fear through their stay. Otherwise they would have become uncontrollable… It is a blight on the penal administration of this State that (these conditions) did occur once and were allowed to continue for nearly thirty-three years (Nagle Report, p.119).

The Grafton unit was closed in 1976 and Katingal opened in 1975 out of general dissatisfaction with Grafton.

Katingal very quickly began to suffer from the same problems as Grafton, for the same reasons; the classification of prisoners as “the worst 1 per cent” allowed the abuse of authority that led to unacceptable conditions. A range of people spoke out against the prison as was quoted on ABC Radio National:

Katingal became a symbol of everything that was wrong with the state’s prisons, a focus of public protest by an unlikely alliance of lawyers, journalists and unions… (Hindsight 13 October 2002).

Katingal was closed in 1978 following the recommendations of the Nagle Report.

It would appear, from reports, that the HRMU has fallen victim to the same problems that caused the condemnation and closure of Grafton and Katingal. Specifically, prisoners are often assigned to the HRMU without justification, and have not been given any indication of when they will be returned to the prison population. The issue of solitary confinement is a serious problem, which does not seem to have been addressed in the design of the HRMU. Instead of addressing these concerns, the Commissioner of Corrective Services, Mr. Woodham stated, "There are a lot of lessons from the Katingal experience. Katingal had no perimeter security. Prisoners broke the unbreakable glass, they broke into it and they broke out of it" (SMH, May 14, 2001).

The Nagle Report recommended the English solution to the problem:

Katingal is not the only means whereby the prison community can be protected from its predators. The English penal authorities favour the dispersal system in which such prisoners are contained in one of a number of units dispersed through various prisons. There is no reason why the dispersal system cannot be resumed in New South Wales and the Commission considers it to be the proper method of containing dangerous prisoners. (Nagle, p. 131)


Had JA been given the opportunity to consult, we would have proposed a design based on the Barlinnie Special Unit in Scotland. Barlinnie was developed as a social and humane response to the escalating cycle of violent confrontation between prisoners and guards, which was spinning out of control at Inverness prison. Barlinnie was described by the NSW Government as a:

Special long term unit for violent inmates offers high levels of privileges (e.g. unlimited visiting facilities), greater prisoner autonomy, input into running unit, contact with non-criminal outsiders, education and art programs, community meetings, and supportive staff-inmate relationship…Immediate expulsion from the unit for any physical violence (www.lawlink.nsw.gov.au, Programs and Approaches to Reduce Prison Violence).

In his analysis of Barlinnie as an alternative to the Inverness ‘cages’, which operated under the same philosophy as the HRMU, Alistair Thomson wrote,

(Barlinnie) has the wholehearted support of the Scottish Prison Officers Association. It has arguably contributed to a reduction of tension in other prisons by isolating some of the system’s worst troublemakers; it has allowed many of these difficult prisoners to cope with their long sentences in a positive manner and in several instances has facilitated an earlier return to the outside community than otherwise might have been expected. In a word, it has provided an alternative means of managing difficult prisoners. (Current International Trends in Corrections, 1988, p. 125)

An attempt to enact something similar was the Special Care Unit (SCU) at Long Bay Correctional Centre, which was inspired by Barlinnie. The SCU was opened in 1981 to replace the Observation Unit, which was strongly criticised by the Nagle Report. The SCU was closed in 1997 because of lack of record-keeping which could give a measure of effectiveness. The SCU was replaced by the Four-Stage Violence Prevention Program, which is housed within the Metropolitan Special Programs Centre (MSPC).

The key distinction between the Barlinnie model and the HRMU would appear to be in the degree of management directed by the prisoners themselves as opposed to direction by the Department. The operating philosophy of the SCU was, “Freedom with responsibility: responsibility to self and community” (Dr. Schwartz, Special Care Unit, Philosophy, Procedures and Achievements). Allowing prisoners to direct their own activity and choose their own community solves many problems for prisoners, officers, and the community they both return to when they leave the prison. When prisoners are able to choose their associates, it immediately reduces the incidents of rape, fights and the resentment of staff that can lead to riots.

The HRMU has followed in the tradition of the spectacular failures of Grafton and Katingal. Both were closed due to the damage they caused to the community, prisoners and the Department. To prevent further failures and promote alternatives to segregation it is essential that community representatives be permitted to inspect the HRMU.


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