Emu Plains Update 2/07

More Lies: Parliamentary Committee Hearing Findings

At the General Purpose Standing Committee No. 3 (Justice, Juvenile Justice) meeting held on 17 November 2006, Greens MP Ms. Rhiannon raised the concern that the Minister of Justice’s representative Mr. McLean misled the 28 August 2006 inquiry.

Mr. McLean essentially claimed that the inmates had requested the changes regarding replacing day visits with the new scheme and were furthermore involved in the decision and implementation process. In reality, prisoners at Emu Plains were merely informed of the changes by the Inmate Development Committee (IDC). As Ms. Rhiannon suggests, being informed of these changes does not mean that prisoners’ actually gave their approval for such modifications to occur. Instead, prisoners have been bullied into stifling complaint by recent threats from the GM of Emu Plains and have been forced to make appeals secretly for outside support, highlighting just how problematic the mechanism system for making complaints actually is. Another justification was that removal of day visits was for the prisoners’ children’s benefits. However, in a meeting that was held on 25 October 2006, one of the major reasons given for the change in policy was the increase in contraband found at Emu Plains. Clearly there are inconsistencies in the DSC’s position that must be addressed.
Mr. Grant, the Assistant Commissioner for the Department of Corrective Services (DCS), attempted to justify the recent changes by drawing the Committee’s attention to the fact that a survey was made available to visitors before the changes in visitation procedure took place. Mr. Grant maintains that only one person from the visiting community suggested that they would be interested in participating in a group that would have regard to the way visits operate. The proposal for a committee is arguably a token gesture when one considers the fact that many visitors face adverse situations themselves; it is thus highly unlikely that they would have the time or resources to engage in debate and consultation about the visiting hours process, especially following the intimidation by DCS officials of their loved ones within the jail itself.

Troubles with the new Booked Visits Procedure:
The Department of Corrective Services maintains that what the separation of day visits into shorter periods ensures is a more orderly way of organizing visits so family and friends do not have to wait for a long time to be processed. Justice Action’s consultation with inmates and visitors regarding the existing [visitation] policy reflects that the opposite of this objective is actually occurring. Visitors can only stay for two-hour periods, and the processing stage is cutting into valuable time that family and friends can spend with Emu Plains’ inmates. Furthermore, the Booked Visits Procedure only gives visitors a three-hour window three days a week (Tuesday until Thursday) to actually schedule an appointment with their loved ones, which may be an obstacle to those who work during the week or have prior commitments to fulfil during this short time span. Glitches in the computer system, coupled with resistance from staff members to answer the phone and take the bookings, means that when individuals do call and book they may nonetheless be turned away once they arrive. Family and friends visits are terminated if they have to use the toilet; often visitors choose to go home on the break instead of standing outside. Prisoners on parole only get a one-hour boxed visit with anyone who is not in their immediate family. This counters the Department of Corrective Services claim that maintaining contact with visitors is top priority in countering recidivism.
Another issue of significant weight at Emu Plains is the proposed DCS initiative by Parliament to bring in all day visits during the week for children instead of on the weekend. Clearly this proposal raises grave concerns: many adults who provide rides for inmates’ children to the prison have to work during the week, whilst others may not have access to transportation to get out to visit if the family car is not available. Most school-aged children are brought in by an extended family member on the weekends to visit their parents. In practice, this day pass means that a child will have to miss class to be dropped off in the morning, while the carer has to leave for four hours in this outer metro region only to return to pick up the child. The scheme fails to take into consideration just how important it is for mothers to visit with their children, whilst not disrupting the lives of family and friends any more than necessary.
Under this new system, it is clear that this new policy will have a detrimental affect on maintaining family relationships. It has been suggested that close family contact between inmates and their families has been proven to reduce recidivism upon prisoner release. Dr. Louise Newman, Director of NSW Institute of Psychiatry, has expressed concerns to Minister Kelly of the recent changes to visiting arrangements at Emu Plains. She highlighted various reasons concerning the benefits of day visits for inmates and visitors to the Department of Corrective Services, and emphasized to the Minister that restricting contact with children is not beneficial to a mother’s mental heath or child development.

Complaints Continue to be Veiled:
Despite the impact that split and booked visits have on prisoners and visitors alike, all-day visits have not been reinstated at the Emu Plains Women’s Prison. Justice Action has contacted Belinda Neal, Chief of Staff, in regards to setting up a meeting with the Minister of Justice – despite these attempts, the Minister has refused to enter into any dialogue with Justice Action to date. Ms. Neal is justifying the decision on the basis that visitors “have not raised any complaints on behalf of inmates or their families with either the Acting Commissioner or the Minister about any aspect of the visiting regime now in place at Emu Plains,” and asserts that the “Minister is satisfied that the issue has been carefully managed by the department, and there is no justification for him to intervene in the outcome of the independent, operational decision-making processes.”

Department of Corrective Services Kicks Justice Action’s Community Services Branch, Breakout, Out of the Community Service Orders (CSO) Scheme:
On 20 November 2006, it was revealed that the DSC affirmed they would no longer be allowing ex-prisoners to do their community service with Breakout, an affiliate community organization to Justice Action. Breakout was launched in 1984 as an employment program for those recently released from prison, and has been hailed in the community as one of the leading CSO agencies that has a strong mentoring program. The DSC asserted that Breakout is “no longer an approved CSO worksite”, but failed to give any reasons for their disapproval and have refused to answer Breakout’s queries regarding the cancellation. It is interesting to note that the letter stating that approval was lost was written by the same person from the DSC who is currently dealing with the Emu Plains visiting issue. Coincidence? Over 25 years of community service and prisoner support has regrettably been halted, and Justice Action is being penalised for having a voice in standing up for the women at Emu Plains and prisoners at large. Transparent mechanisms must be implemented to ensure that justice is met.

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