Joint Media Release
7 July 2021

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, legal, human rights and civil liberties organisations have called on the Andrews government to take urgent steps to increase transparency and prevent mistreatment behind bars after a new report has highlighted serious deficiencies in disciplinary processes in Victorian prisons.                                  

The Victorian Ombudsman’s Investigation into good practice when conducting prison disciplinary hearings found that disciplinary hearings in Victorian prisons are still carried out ‘in the dark’ with insufficient scrutiny, oversight or transparency. 

Particularly concerning are the Ombudsman’s findings that people in prison with a cognitive disability or mental illness are over-represented in disciplinary processes, that their condition was not consistently considered and that insufficient support was provided. 

This report comes just weeks after Victoria’s anti-corruption watchdog – the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission – released its Special report on corrections which uncovered serious and systemic wrongdoing in Victoria’s private and public prisons.

These reports highlight the pressing need for the Andrews government to:

  1. Reform of disciplinary processes to make them fairer, including that people must get a fair hearing in front of an independent hearing officer, written reasons must be given and easily accessible review mechanisms must be put in place.
  2. Take steps to prevent mistreatment in prisons, including banning the use of harmful, unnecessary and degrading practices like routine strip searching and solitary confinement.
  3. Implement proper oversight of conditions and treatment in detention, by realising the vision of the UN’s anti-torture protocol – OPCAT – to ensure regular and independent oversight of Victoria’s prisons. 

Andreea Lachsz, Head of Policy, Communications and Strategy, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, said:

“This is the second report by an independent body in less than a month that has highlighted dangerous practices in Victoria’s prisons, including a failure to uphold the rights of people with a disability. The fact that detained people with a disability do not receive appropriate independent support through the disciplinary hearing process is indefensible.

“The Ombudsman found that disciplinary hearings continue to be conducted ‘in the dark’. And yet, as we approach the January 2022 deadline for establishing an OPCAT-compliant detention oversight mechanism, the Andrews Government risks squandering this critical opportunity for robust, routine independent scrutiny and transparency.

“The status quo is inexcusable, and the fact that the Andrews Government does not recognise the urgent need for reform is to be condemned. The culture within Victoria’s prisons is deeply ingrained and the Andrews Government’s tough on crime agenda and reckless spending on prison expansion has only deepened the problem. VALS again calls on the Victorian Government to raise the age of criminal responsibility, make legislative changes to its punitive bail laws and implement culturally safe OPCAT detention oversight bodies.”

Megan Pearce, Managing Lawyer Social Action and Public Interest Law, Fitzroy Legal Service, said: 

“Today’s Ombudsman report is more evidence that Victoria’s prison system urgently needs more independent oversight. Fitzroy Legal Service regularly assists people challenging prison decisions that seem wrong and unfair, like taking away important medication in response to alleged disciplinary infractions.”

“We can’t lock away some of the most vulnerable members of our community and then refuse them access to support and procedural fairness. Making the prison discipline process fairer and more transparent is just one part of broader measures – banning routine strip searching, ending the use of solitary confinement – that will ensure the dignity and humane treatment of people in custody.”

Meena Singh, Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, said: 

“Abuse thrives in darkness and the potential for injustice is rife when appropriate oversight is not applied to decisions made behind closed doors in prisons. Secret hearings have no place in Victorian prisons and there must be increased transparency of prison disciplinary processes. The Andrews government must also take urgent steps to prevent mistreatment in Victoria’s prisons. This starts with banning the use of harmful and degrading practices like routine strip searching and solitary confinement.”

Julia Kretzenbacher, President of Liberty Victoria, said:

“Backroom deals done in darkness, including those that mean people might be denied medical treatment, such as the methadone program should not happen. These kinds of secret hearings are a breach of human rights and not consistent with prisoners’ rights under the Charter.”

“The Andrews government must ensure that prisons are run in accordance with the Charter. Disciplinary processes must be reformed and damaging practices such as routine strip searching and solitary confinement must be abolished. There also needs to be independent oversight of prisons through the implementation of the UN’s anti-torture protocol, OPCAT.”

Elena Pappas, CEO of the Law and Advocacy Centre for Women, said: 

“With women in custody overwhelmingly victims of violence themselves, the lack of transparency, accountability and access to support in relation to disciplinary hearings is yet another way in which the prison system compounds and exacerbates pre-existing trauma for these women.”

“A significant proportion of women in prison suffer from mental ill-health and cognitive impairment. It is alarming to note the Ombudsman’s findings around limited access to information and support for people with cognitive impairment, their over-representation in disciplinary hearings and a lack of transparency concerning procedural fairness in relation to these cases. Appropriate, independent oversight of prisons, including in relation to disciplinary processes, is urgently required to ensure the rights of our community’s most vulnerable members are respected and upheld.”