Life Prisoners’ Inquiry: The Hearing Report

The NSW Parliament Legislative Council’s Inquiry into the Security Classification and Management of Inmates Sentenced to Life Imprisonment took place on the 23rd of November, and ran all day. The Standing Committee on Law and Justice consisted of representatives from the major political parties, and heard submissions from government representatives, major victims’ support groups, and Justice Action. All key players were present including the Commissioner Peter Severin, The Hon Reginald Blanch AM QC who was speaking as the Chair of the Serious Offenders Review Council (SORC), and Dr John Paget, the Former Inspector of Custodial Services. Channel 9 and other observers were also present to record the proceedings. Please see below for links to the transcript and media reports on the inquiry so far:

Transcript: Inquiry into the Security Classification and Management of Inmates Sentenced to Life in Imprisonment 
Channel 9: Criminals Share What Life is Like on the Inside 
Huffington Post: Ex-convicts and Experts Ask Inquiry for Prison Overhaul 
Justice Action and Enough is Enough Online Counselling ProposalEmail stream of negotiations with Corrective Services showing no progressLife Prisoners’ Inquiry Index Page

Justice Action, a community-based watchdog for the criminal justice system, represented the life prisoners at the inquiry. Justice Action aligned with victim groups’ arguments for more information from the criminal justice system and fairer treatment for all involved. The Justice Action Team commenced proceedings by introducing three ex-prisoner witnesses:

  • Mr Robert Veen (biography), an Aboriginal man who was a member of the Stolen Generation and subjected to prostitution as a 20-year-old, served two consecutive life sentences; 
  • Mr Garry Page (biography), an ageing man with two visible indents in his head from voluntarily submitting to an amygdalotomy (brain surgery) in the aim to curb his aggression, served a life sentence; and 
  • Mr John Killick (biography), a man who has spent the majority of his life since the 1960’s in prison across four different Australian states, served his time with some of the most notorious lifers.

Justice Action led the inquiry by saying sorry to the victims who were affected by convicts’ crimes, and thanked the victims for “showing a lack of vindictiveness” in their presentation before the Committee. The convicts spoke about their experiences. They also reprimanded the media for their role in heightening the political pressure to reclassify lifers back to maximum security after being declassified, as occurred in the case of Andrew Garforth. This was the case that ultimately brought about the inquiry, after the Minister for Corrective Services NSW, David Elliott, unlawfully decided to reverse Mr Garforth’s declassification, and reclassify twelve lifers to maximum security.

Justice Action articulated two key points that were backed up by strong evidence: that victims do not support the Minister’s decision, contrary to his belief and that the decision was incorrect and unlawful in circumventing the Commissioner’s decision based on SORC’s recommendations. Justice Action also proposed a number of recommendations, including that victims should not be notified of changes to the security classification of a prisoner unless it could affect their safety, and that ministerial intervention in administrative matters relating to individuals should not be permitted. The Commissioner should act upon the advice of expert Committees and Boards appointed for that purpose and should provide detailed reasons if the Commissioner decides to act against their recommendation. Every prisoner should be encouraged to improve their behaviour and develop personally, with the prospect of hope and reconciliation with the community. Both the victim and the offender should have the right to privacy protected in legislation.

Together, Justice Action and the victim support groups argued for greater transparency from Corrective Services NSW, greater victim and prisoner privacy, and the maintenance of a philosophy of hope for prisoners through accessible rehabilitation services and the possibility of declassification. Collaboration already exists between offender and victim support groups. In addition, Justice Action and Enough is Enough, a prominent victims’ rights and anti-violence group, have come together to propose online counselling services in prison cells for inmates.  With Union support, Justice Action and allied victims’ groups have requested three months of access to the prisons to set up the system. The Justice Action team also spoke about justice reinvestment as more cost-effective than prison, and an overall better allocation of resources.

Mr William Hutchins, the Solicitor in charge of Legal Aid NSW, spoke about the lack of detailed reasons provided by the Commissioner of Corrective Services NSW, Mr Peter Severin, when rejecting the declassification of prisoners. His rejection of the declassification of prisoners came about even after the Serious Offenders Review Council had recommended they be declassified. The Members of Parliament showed significant surprise at this, with one even saying that it was “bloody odd”. The Hon John Dowd AO QC, President of the Community Justice Coalition, who spoke after Mr Hutchins, also argued strongly in favour of keeping the current lifer classification system in place without arbitrary intervention by the Minister.

Commissioner Peter Severin was confronted with the fact that his actions, in deciding to upgrade the classifications of previously declassified lifers based on ministerial pressure, were unlawful. He ultimately stated that he is waiting for the Inquiry’s report in March before deciding to return prisoners to their previous classifications, including two prisoners who were reduced to a C1 classification before the decision placed them back into the highest prisoner category.

Overall, it was a positive day for the advocates of prisoner rights and victim support groups. After the hearing, Justice Action attempted to communicate with Commissioner Severin privately, asking him for support for the proposal of online counselling services, however he would not talk with us directly. Following this, it was discovered that Corrective Services does not have sufficient funding to set up the online counselling network and is unwilling to discuss the matter further.

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