In March 2008, Justice Action received a letter from Mr. Barry Collier MP, assistant to the Attorney General and Minister for Justice, in which he responded to the ongoing, restrictive visitation system currently in place at Emu Plains Correctional Centre.
Having been in regular contact with inmates, former inmates, and their familiesthose who are experiencing the changed visitation policies firsthandJustice Action circulated Mr. Colliers letter amongst the group for comment. Their overwhelming response leads us to believe that Corrective Services is continuing to spread seriously misleading information regarding the current policy and the impact that it is having on all those involved.
Four points in Mr. Colliers letter are of particular concern:
1. Queuing and the Lunch Break
Mr. Collier comments:
The Commissioner of Corrective Services had advised that visits at Emu Plains run all day on weekends, with a break of one hour between 11.30am and 12.30pm. This allows visitors time to obtain lunch for themselves and any accompanying children. I am advised that there have been no complaints form the families of inmates regarding the one hour lunch break.
In fact, Justice Action is aware of a significant number of relevant complaints from both the families of inmates and the inmates themselves. We have received concerned letters and contact from numerous individuals, some of whom have been too intimidated to speak to Corrective Services directly, noting that their previous complaints resulted only in the implementation of increasingly restrictive policies.
We are aware that as a direct result of the huge number of complaints from families and inmates, questions have been asked in Parliament and prominent politicians such as Clover Moore and Sandra Nori have become personally involved. The Departments comments to the contrary are most concerning.
The issues of particular concern in relation to queuing and the lunch break are:
(a) Lengthy Queuing Times
We are advised that it is taking, on average, a full hour to process visitors in the reception area at each session, and in some cases, up to an hour and a half.
This is clearly problematic even for visitors who only attend one visitation session, but its seriousness is doubled for those who choose to attend both sessions.
It must be remembered that it is the little children waiting to see their mothers who are the worst affected by long waits. This was not the case under the previous visiting arrangement.
(b) Obtaining Lunch
The previous arrangement was that the local Rotary Club provided lunch for the women, their children, and other visitors, and money raised was put towards local government projects.
The current arrangement is for visitors to leave the Departments property by 11.30am and to return for processing at 12.30pm, when the queuing process begins again. Despite this, visitors are being requested to lave the visitation area on or before 11.00am and 3.00pm, rather than the fixed 11.30am and 3.30pm, purportedly because of staff shifts.
In between 11.30am and 12.30pm, visitors must somehow find lunch. For those who rely on public transportation, this is all but impossible, because there are no lunch facilities available within walking distance of Emu Plains, and public transport, particularly on weekends, does not coincide with the Departments visiting arrangements.
The outcome of the queuing and lunch problems is that it is common for visitors who attend both sessions to wait in queues for up to 3 hours in one day, simply waiting to be processed, and more often than not, they are unable to obtain lunch.
This is most undesirable, particularly when one takes into account that the worst affected are young children hoping to visit their mothers.
2. The Booking System
Mr. Collier comments:
Visitors are able to book for both morning and afternoon sessions, as well as both days of the weekend, if they so wish.
Regarding the booking system implemented in 2007, the complaints that have been made to us by families and friends of inmates focus on the facts that
– It sometimes takes hours to be connected to administration staff to book a visit; and
– Unlike under the previous arrangement, it is not always possible to book both morning and afternoon sessions. In fact, sessions can be completely booked by as early as Wednesday mornings. The introduction of the booking system has brought with it the introduction of a quota system.
This means that although visits at the prison technically run all day on weekends, in practical terms, it is often impossible for visitors to book both sessions on any single day. This was not previously the case, and it means that vulnerable children are missing out on valuable time with their mothers.
Emu Plains Correctional Centre is a minimum security comprised of 250 female prisoners. Crime statistics show that approximately 78% of female inmates imprisoned in NSW have children. These high numbers mean that the introduction of a quotaone which results in children missing out on visits with their mothershas widespread and significant effects, and is, from any rehabilitative standpoint, totally unacceptable.
3. Wednesday Visits
Mr. Collier comments:
A childrens visiting day is provided each Wednesday for mothers to spend uninterrupted time with their children.
We have been advised that Wednesday visits are limited to children in the care of the Department of Corrective Services visiting their mothers, and are not generally open to all inmates in the prison. Furthermore, a mid-week all-day visitwhile commendablecannot possibly replace an all-day weekend visit, as many caregivers must work during the week, and school-aged children are unavailable. In fact, Wednesday visits have been in place for some time, but for these very reasons, have never been well attended.
4. Day and Weekend Release Programs
Mr. Collier comments:
In addition, the Centre offers the Day and Weekend Release programs, allowing offenders to spend entire days as well as weekends with their families.
As previously stated, Emu Plains Correctional Centre has approximately 250 female inmates. Family members and inmates who have contacted us believe that the Day and Weekend Release programs are very small and do not apply to most inmates, especially since Day and Weekend Release policies have also undergone recent changes and restrictions.
We believe that the concerns raised in our correspondence with Mr. Collier are of the utmost importance and require urgent attention. Above all else, they demonstrate that it is the young children who have been and continue to be the most badly affected by these changes in policy.
It is simply unacceptable that, as the campaign for the return of Emu Plains all-day visits enters its third year, the most basic realities of the current situation are still misunderstood. Corrective Services continues to obfuscate the gravity of the issue and to discourage dialogue as well as progress, thereby contributing to the breakdown of family ties and the hindrance of prisoners rehabilitation. We must recognize the detrimental effects that these policies are having on the women of Emu Plains, their loved ones, and the broader community, and continue to work with other organizations and politicians to bring attention to this issue. We must demand a reversal of the decision to ban all-day visits, as well as the creation of more creative, rehabilitative approaches to strengthening family ties and lowering recidivism rates.