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frmd1.gifRedress Roundabout

Source: Framed, March 2004, Issue #46

If you think something’s wrong, you’ve got a right, even a duty, to complain about it. That’s an elementary principle of any human society worthy of the name. Prisoners don’t lose this right – and this duty – just because they’re prisoners. In fact, given that, as Dostoyevsky said, “the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons”, prisoners have a special duty to complain about prison conditions that are inhumane, squalid or undignified. Or conditions that alienate them from the outside world, or that do not protect them against violence or sexual attacks. So that a society can know what’s happening in its prisons, it needs a system that hears prisoners’ complaints, and examines them properly. So that a society can become more human, it needs a system that can redress prisoners’ grievances and bring about change.


There are other reasons why it is important for prisoners to have access to a complaints procedure which inspires their confidence. A reform-oriented penal system aims to encourage prisoners’ identification with, rather than alienation from, the community at large. If people who aren’t in jail ought to be able to get redress for their grievances, the same should apply to prisoners. Also, it is well recognised by now – or at least it ought to be – that disastrous consequences follow if people can’t voice their complaints and entertain hope for redress of grievances. Normal reactions are suppressed, and assertiveness and openness are replaced by internally directed rage and frustration. Sooner or later, of course, these inner pressures will be acted out, quite often as violent behaviour against some quite innocent person who had nothing to do with it.
For all these reasons, prisoners who complain should not be dismissed out of hand as troublemakers and malcontents. Far less, of course, should they be victimised because they made a complaint. The same goes for prisoners’ family members and their complaints. There are avenues to complain about abuses by authorities in Carr’s NSW (and Howard’s Australia), but the channels used are so decadent, ineffective and corrupt they actually add insult to injury by tying complainants up in ineffective processes and ultimately denying the reality of their experiences. And when something like the Redfern riot following the death of TJ Hickey comes up, Carr uses agencies like the Ombudsman to deflect calls for a real examination of the facts and sets the stage for another whitewash instead.
Take the case of visitors’ rights in prisons – something cancelled frequently, at the whim of corrective services officers. Josephine Timbrell, for example, is the mother of a child whose father is in prison. She was banned from visiting jails after DCS decided she’d brought in 5.1 grams of “GVM” to her fiancé at Goulburn Jail. (GVM? That’s short for Green Vegetable Matter, would you believe – pot in plain language, but talking in gobbledegook is one of the games bureaucrats play.) She was told her fiancé had made a statement against her, which he denies he did. Josephine asked for the video of the cell search which supposedly found the GVM, because she suspected that the jail authorities were fabricating evidence. But DCS told her the video wasn’t available as it was “part of an evidence package” and the matter “had been referred to the Police”. She contacted the police but was told there was no investigation involving her fiancé or her.
The DCS letter had told her she could write to the Ombudsman, so she did. The Ombudsman said it wouldn’t take up the case because she hadn’t taken it to DCS. (This is called the run-around, another cruel little game bureaucrats play.)
But the Ombudsman also said a second reason they hadn’t taken up the case was because “the Ombudsman does not perform a role of reviewing individual cases where discretionary decisions are made by public authorities, such as Corrective Services.” Oh, really? we asked. So what does it do? Oh, that was “poorly expressed”, the Ombudsman replied. We meant something different ... you misunderstood ... We wonder how many other prisoners and prisoners’ relatives have been subjected to the Ombudsman’s poor expression? And did the revision mean they would, now, take on Josephine’s complaint? Not in the least. She remains banned till January 2005. Her 3-year-old son Lochlan no longer sees his father, because his mum can’t take him to visit him.
Josephine writes:

Goulburn Jail has a lot to answer for. They took the most important person in our lives
away by fabricating evidence. They owe us an apology at least, they need to bring out
the video and let me see it so I can let go, move past this and learn to trust again, at the
moment I don’t trust anyone, because I don’t know. Until I do know I have no way to
move on.

Good one, NSW penal system!
Or take the case of the much-stigmatised prisoner Ivan Milat. Ivan broke his hand in April 2003. The nurse wanted to put it in splints, but the prison officer wouldn’t let her, because he thought there was a “security issue”. Ivan’s hand is now permanently deformed. Ivan complained to the Health Care Complaints Commission. The HCCC said it couldn’t handle stuff to do with prison guards (at least, that’s what it said when you translated it into English) and sent him to the Ombudsman. And the Ombudsman said? “Please note,” said he, “I am not hear (sp!!) to say whether the decision was right or wrong.” He then went on to say he assessed that “the decision was one any reasonable person would make placed in the same position”, which sounds to us pretty much the same thing as saying it was the right decision. Then, even more amazing, he went on to say he didn’t think there was enough evidence to warrant investigation – so how did he reach his assessment, we wonder? Another good one, penal system!
We should add that Ivan has had endless experience of this sort of treatment and when, briefly, there seemed to be a chance that an agency (Privacy NSW) wouldtake one of his complaints seriously (see Framed 43), Carr responded by forcing the resignation of the Privacy Commissioner Chris Puplick and abolishing prisoners’ privacy rights. Are there any other avenues? Well, there’s the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. But, as a Federal body, it’ll deal only with complaints from Federal prisoners. And, anyway, look what HREOC did with prisoners’ complaints about the banning of Framed from NSW jails. On 28 January HREOC gave us the bad news – they decided that the Department of Corrective Services was justified in banning Framed 42 (but not any other edition of Framed) for the sake of “good order and security” in the prisons. In making his decision, the HREOC President, one John von Doussa, QC, said he took into account that Woodham had supplied JA with “significant factual details” so that offending material in Framedcould be corrected. This is absolutely untrue – Woodham gave us nothing, except a note saying he didn’t intend to “dignify” the draft we sent him with a response, and another one saying the same thing. We’d supplied HREOC with copies of all the correspondence to-and-fro between us and Woodham. Yet HREOC just took Woodham’s word for it!!! You’ve heard of the Sharia justice system, where the testimony of a woman is only worth half that of a man – well it looks like here in glorious NSW the word of a screw is worth more than the word of a whole collective of ex-prisoners and criminal justice activists.
Any other avenues to seek redress of grievances? You might try writing to the Minister’s office – after all, as a democratically elected representative of the people, the Minister is supposed to be above the bureaucrats, the administrators, the screws, and act for the common good, right? Well, not this Minister, not Hatzistergos!! Item: his treatment of the persistent complaints coming from the men of the Hole. And then there’s JA’s recent request for a letter to be distributed to Inmate Development Committees in NSW jails, seeking their input for the JA contribution to a symposium marking the 25th anniversary of Justice Nagle’s landmark report on NSW prison conditions. In a breathtaking revelation of his attitude to prisoners, Hatzi replied that he was not “prepared to waste departmental time and resources for an ad hoc and self-serving anthology of potentially inaccurate, prejudiced and highly relativistic prisoners’ perspectives.” (These are the IDCs he’s talking about, mind you – i.e. the officially recognised and established conduits for prisoners’ concerns, not some bunch of random prisoners!!) One important thing about Justice Nagle is he didn’t assume that prisoners would lie, he was prepared to believe a prisoner’s word even though it went against the self-serving, inaccurate, prejudiced and highly relativistic twaddle served up by the screws. And this is one of the main reasons why he and his report will go down in history, while Hatzi, Woodham and all they stand for turn to dust.

 

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