MEDIA RELEASE 24 June 2021
Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS)

IBAC’s Special report on corrections: IBAC Operations Rous, Caparra, Nisidia and Molara makes a clear link between the expansion in prison capacity and an increase in corruption within the corrections system.

The Andrews Government’s tough on crime agenda, including the implementation of draconian bail laws, and has led to bigger prisons, more inexperienced staff, and a wider use of private contractors.

VALS has consistently advised the Andrews Government that its tough on crime agenda and draconian bail laws are a failed policy. The IBAC report is further proof that these policies must be urgently abandoned.

People in prison are being exposed to mistreatment and abuse that includes corrections staff engaging in excessive use of force, inappropriate strip searches, interfering with camera recordings, and trafficking contraband. In one instance, a person with an intellectual disability was subjected to the excessive use of force. In another, a person was strip searched for seven minutes in violation of the prison’s own policy, and assaulted by staff when he protested. The report found prison staff have limited understanding of human rights obligations and some have never received any training on safeguarding the rights of people in prison.

VALS notes the gross lack of transparency and accountability for misconduct by prison staff, particularly in relation to private prisons. Some corrections officers who committed abuses were only disciplined by management after several months, once IBAC had commenced its investigation. In several cases, staff appeared to have interfered with cameras to hide footage of their misconduct. Incident reports simply recorded the version of events presented by the staff involved, ignoring the allegations from people subjected to abuse.

This IBAC report highlights the urgent need for independent oversight of places of detention. The Victorian Government has until January 2022 to properly implement robust independent oversight of places of detention under its UN OPCAT obligations. That means that the OPCAT detention oversight body, the NPM, must be well resourced, have its powers and privileges legislated, and be culturally safe for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Infrequent investigations like these by IBAC are an insufficient protection of the human rights of people in prison.

VALS again calls on the Andrews Government to implement urgent bail reforms in line with the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that called for bail to be made more accessible and for incarceration to only be used as a last resort. The seriousness of the abuse uncovered in Victoria’s corrections systems makes reducing the number of people in prison, particularly Aboriginal people, even more urgent.

Quotes Attributable to Andreea Lachsz, Head of Policy, Communications and Strategy, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service

“IBAC’s report found that prison expansion and privatisation are contributing factors to corruption and shocking abuse within Victoria’s Corrections system.”

“Corrections staff engaging in excessive use of force, inappropriate strip searches, interfering with camera recordings, trafficking contraband – these are just some of the abuses IBAC found.”

“Many of the abuses in the report happened at Port Phillip, a private facility. Victoria needs to dismantle the private prison industry, in which profits trump human rights, transparency and accountability.”

“There’s clearly a culture of disregard for human rights in Victorian prisons. Victoria needs legislation, that clearly outlines obligations and consequences for non-compliance, to properly safeguard against human rights abuses in prisons.”

“While we welcome IBAC’s recommendations for greater training and oversight of corrections staff, it is critical that the Andrews Government urgently proceed with bail reform and other policies to reduce the overall prison population, which is at risk of abuses like the ones outlined in the report.”

“Because of the Andrews Government’s draconian bail laws, we have seen an alarming increase in the number of people held on remand in prison. 44% of people currently in prison haven’t been found guilty of anything. The bail laws are in direct conflict with the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and we now have yet another independent report condemning the abuses and corruption endemic to Victorian prisons.”

“On the 15th anniversary of OPCAT, this report makes clear how urgently Victoria needs to establish an OPCAT detention oversight body to prevent human rights abuses in prisons.”

To determine eligibility VALS will:

  • enquire as to the Aboriginality of the client;
  • enquire as to perceived or actual conflict of interest;
  • enquire as to compliance with the Means Test;
  • consider the merit of the client’s matter.

Aboriginality
The first time someone uses VALS they must provide proof of their Aboriginality using the Confirmation of Aboriginality Form. This form must be signed and sealed by the Officer Bearers of a recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation.

Conflict
VALS must not decline to provide assistance to an eligible person, group or body on the grounds that the other party to the matter is an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person. In circumstances where the relationship between the parties to a case would result in a conflict of interest, that conflict must be managed in accordance with the Victorian Legal Practice requirements and Policy Direction 9 – “Managing Conflicts of Interest” – of the Attorney-General’s Department Policy Directions for the Delivery of Legal Aid Services to Indigenous Australians (2008).

VALS will not act if a conflict of interest exists. A conflict of interest may be an ‘actual’ conflict of interest or a ‘perceived’ conflict of interest. A conflict of interest can involve:

  • Clients who have different interests, such as VALS may have advised or acted for person “A” (old client) who has an interest that conflicts with person “B” (intended new client).
  • Clients and VALS, such as a VALS staff member or Board Member has an interest that conflicts with an intended new client. Conflicts involving client-provider relationships are:
    •  An owner, director, manager, employee, contractor or agent of VALS and/or;
    • An employee of the Department; and/or
    • A close relative (spouse, de facto, parent, sibling or child) of any of the above.

VALS provides assistance on a first in best dressed basis (i.e. provide direct assistance to the party who approaches VALS first). VALS will refer the other party to another legal service provider or “brief out” the client to a private lawyer (subject to the client meeting the requirements for brief outs). Where appropriate, VALS may act for one client and provide assistance by brief out to the other.

Means Test
Where a person seeks casework assistance, VALS must ensure that applicants satisfy the Means Testing provisions of the Policy Directions.

VALS must ensure that all applicants for legal casework assistance satisfy one or more of the following requirements:

  • Under 18 years of age;
  • Main source of income comes from Community Development Employment Projects; (CDEP) participant wages or Centrelink (or equivalent) benefits; or
  • Gross household income is under $52,000 per annum.

Note: Household income includes the income of your partner, spouse, relative including an adult child who you live with.

The Means Test will be administered in two parts:

Part A: Requires the completion of a small number of questions relating to the applicant’s personal circumstances and income level.

Part B: Is required where applicants do not satisfy the criteria in Part A. It requires more detail about the applicant’s income, assets, employment status and number of dependents.

Merit Test
Discretion will be used to determine if a particular case has merit.