Standing Committee on Public Administration — Twenty-ninth Report
"Consultation with Statutory Office Holders”
Resumed from 15 October.
Hon ALISON XAMON: I move —
That the report be noted.
I would first like to thank the chamber for enabling me to take a few moments to speak to this report. I will not take the entire hour, but I want to put a few comments on the record before we return to orders of the day and our deliberations on the voluntary assisted dying legislation. I am referring to the twenty-ninth report of the Standing Committee on Public Administration titled “Consultation with Statutory Office Holders”. I note that the Minister for Corrective Services is due to give a response by 15 December 2019. After that reply has been given, I will be seeking to make further comments. I want to make a few comments about this report because it is a very important one for us to give consideration to before the end of the year, bearing in mind that we are talking about thousands of people who are currently incarcerated and who rely very heavily on this Parliament keeping an eye on what is happening within our prison system and to these people. I thank the committee for this report. It is a very good report and evidence of time well spent. The report outlines a number of people who were met with, including the Ombudsman, the Information Commissioner and the Public Sector Commissioner, but today I particularly want to look at chapter 2, which outlines that the committee spoke with the Inspector of Custodial Services. I understand that the committee used as its reference point a couple of very important reports that the inspector has released in recent times, which I have also read, as well as the most recent annual report. I note that since then, as of yesterday, a further annual report has been tabled in this place.
I want to pick up on a few of the points that the committee has reported on. One issue is the impact of the 30-day embargo period on Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services reports. As is outlined in this report, that provision is effectively a legacy provision. There is a 30-day embargo period between when the inspector issues a report after an inspection and when the report is given to the Parliament, because there have been concerns in the past about the inspectorate undertaking appropriate legal processes and not inadvertently tabling anything that could be legally compromising. However, since then, it really has become a redundant provision. In effect, it hampers our capacity to have a very timely response, particularly to some of the more urgent matters that are sometimes raised as a result of the independent oversight of the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services. I think there is an additional problem. I am constantly struck by the number of times I have started to read a report from the inspector that has been tabled in this place and think, “Hold on, I recall there was some sort of government announcement about this one only last week or even two weeks ago.” Unfortunately, it can serve to allow governments of any persuasion a bit of breathing space, when they have dropped the ball and have not been doing the right thing in corrective services, to pretend that they are on top of things and doing something about them, and that the report is somehow redundant. Unfortunately, we are in a media landscape in which there are fewer and fewer outlets and many journalists are under the pump, so sometimes those sorts of connections are not readily made. I think that is problematic. I would like to see the 30-day embargo period on the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services removed, as per the committee’s recommendation 1, which states —
The 30 day time period provided by section 35 of the Inspector of Custodial Services Act 2003, for the tabling in Parliament of documents under section 33 or 34 of that Act, be reviewed.
I think that is important and I hope it is undertaken by the responsible minister. I suggest that it needs to be removed, because it is unfortunately not being used for the purposes that may originally have been envisaged—that is, to ensure that the reports that are tabled in this place are proper. Instead, it is giving governments of all persuasions an opportunity to effectively lessen the impact of these important, independent reports. I have concerns about that. If there are very urgent matters that have to be addressed, I would like the Parliament to be advised about them as soon as possible.
The report talks about a number of other elements. As I said, I will want to speak about this more in future, but I will focus on some key points today. The report talks about the options for detaining young people in their local region rather than at Banksia Hill Detention Centre. This has been an ongoing issue for quite some time. Following the riots several years ago in the youth facilities, one of the key recommendations by the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services was to completely change the way in which we address youth justice in this state. More specifically, OICS talked about the necessity of separating girls and boys, and different age groups, and about creating different settings around Western Australia to lessen the impact of taking young people away from their lands. This is very, very important because we know that far too often, a lot of young people who find themselves caught up in the justice system have a range of cognitive impairments and mental health issues. Virtually all of them have backgrounds of trauma. To take them further away from family, community and lands can cause extraordinary harm and, indeed, diminish their chances of recovery and rehabilitation.
The government flagged that it was going to look at a massive rejig of the way in which we deal with youth justice. I have asked lots of questions in this place since I took my seat in the fortieth Parliament to find out what is happening, and I am very discouraged to note that there has been no progress on this. We do not have different facilities for girls, and we do not have different facilities for different age groups, and we most certainly are nowhere close to looking at different facilities around this state. I think this is a massive problem. We have been talking for years about the need to do this, and one annual report after another talks about the need for this to occur, so I really hope we might see some positive progress in this term of government, as was promised. If we cannot do the right thing by children who are caught up in the justice system, we are truly failing. These are probably the people who need our most dedicated attention.
The report also talks about the involvement of the Department of Education in the provision of education services at Banksia Hill Detention Centre and some of the things that are occurring. This is an ongoing issue. In fact, it is a broader issue with the Department of Justice and the Department of Corrective Services in the delivery of a range of services in the prison system, whether they be mental health, health, alcohol and other drug services, domestic violence counselling or education and training. It is fair to say that the Department of Justice is not very good at delivering these services and never has been. Ideally, we need to look at a continuum of care for the delivery of education services within Banksia Hill to children who are slowly beginning to re-engage with some sort of education program—a lot of these kids cannot read, or their literacy and numeracy skills are extraordinarily low—so that they get an opportunity to properly re-engage with our state education system. That is in no way a criticism of the wonderful people who are working at Banksia Hill, trying to deliver these education services.
The CHAIR: The question is that the report be noted.
Hon ALISON XAMON: I have had the privilege over the years of meeting with and speaking to many of them, and I think they are deeply dedicated to those children, but they are hamstrung by a lack of resourcing within the overall budget and by the disconnect between the delivery of education services in the prison system and the delivery of education services across the rest of the state. The committee supports the ongoing involvement of the Department of Education, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, in the delivery of educational services at Banksia Hill, but I note that we still have a really long way to go. I will be very interested to hear what the minister’s reply on that will be.
The perennial issue of double-bunking in prison cells was also raised. We know that double-bunking is a phenomenon of the last decade and, under the term of the previous government, there were frequent reports from the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services of triple-bunking, including at Bandyup Women’s Prison, where there were instances of pregnant women being left to sleep on the floor in cells of three that had been designed for only one person. That is absolutely substandard, if not downright dangerous. It seems, from reading this report, that the inspector has formed the view that double-bunking is now considered pretty much standard practice across the country because prison populations have spiralled out of control. I note that this is still not considered to be best practice, bearing in mind that the purpose of prison ideally should be to focus on rehabilitation so that when people leave, they do not offend again. This seems to have been normalised and I am disappointed by that.
The committee also talked about the increased use of lockdowns and made the connection with the inflexible staffing arrangements occurring in prisons. Again, this is an issue I have been asking a lot of questions about, specifically the hours of lockdowns. I am very concerned about the number of hours that juvenile detainees, in particular, are being held in lockdown. This is very bad for their mental health and wellbeing. We know we have a system that is struggling if the reason this is happening is inadequate or inflexible staffing arrangements. There will have to be some serious work with the Western Australian Prison Officers’ Union to sit down and talk about how this can be resolved. I remind members that the purpose of our prisons is to house prisoners; they are not there to provide jobs for the people who work there. I know that is a controversial thing to say and that successive governments have struggled to address the very fine balancing act of the demands of the Prison Officers’ Union and the very genuine needs of prisoners, but I am not here to represent the views of that union, not if it comes at the expense of the human rights and dignity of prisoners.
I also want to make some comments about the availability of short-term programs to remand prisoners and propose changes to the remand accommodation at Casuarina Prison. In the report, both the inspector and the deputy inspector indicated that they were not aware whether remandees had access to drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. I am aware that they do not, and I think that is a huge problem. We are talking about people being kept on remand for up to six months. In fact, sometimes we are talking about people even being on remand for possibly years. Quite simply, if people are on remand and they have an alcohol or drug problem, it should be addressed, whether or not the offences for which they have been charged are related to any such problem. It should be an opportunity, and I am very concerned to ensure that it is addressed. I will be very interested to hear what the minister has to say about this.
I also want to talk about the report into the birth at Bandyup Women’s Prison. That hearing was a private hearing, and I think that was absolutely appropriate. I thank the committee for showing such sensitivity on what is a very personal and private matter for that prisoner. I imagine it would have been quite a distressing hearing. As a result of the unattended birth of a baby at Bandyup in March last year, a number of recommendations were made to make sure it never happens again. It potentially put that woman’s wellbeing, and life, at risk, and also that of the baby. It is hard to believe that such a scenario was able to occur in this day and age. The committee pursued a number of issues such as what is happening with the transfer of pregnant remand prisoners, the status of the planned additional mother and baby accommodation for Bandyup, the practice of double-bunking, the development of the government’s proposals to build an infirmary and the adequacy of the Department of Justice’s responses to the recommendations in the Bandyup report. A couple of recommendations have come as a result of that, specifically recommendation 2, which states —
A clear government policy governing the transfer of pregnant women from Melaleuca Remand and Reintegration Facility to Bandyup Women’s Prison, is required.
I heartily support that recommendation. Again, I find it inexplicable that that has not already occurred. I hope by the time we have the government’s response, such policy has already been created. It really should not be that difficult. I will be very happy if I find that the next time I stand up in this place to speak about this report we have some progress. I flag now that I expect there to have been progress and I expect the policy to have been written, because we cannot have this situation arise for female prisoners again.
I turn to the status of the additional mother and baby accommodation plan for Bandyup. The summary report talked about the Bandyup nursery and how it is being used. It also pointed out that calls for the expansion have been happening for some time and that recommendations have been made to expand housing at Bandyup for women in the late stages of pregnancy and new mothers. The government’s response at that point was that it was looking at an expansion of the scope of work. There was also talk about unit 6 at Bandyup being designed for accommodation for pregnant women. I have been to unit 6 at Bandyup and I am not sure that it is appropriate for pregnant women. The accommodation options are available specifically for women in late pregnancy and those with young children, and the units at Bandyup that have been designed specifically for that are very, very different from unit 6. I do not know whether the government is relying on the fact that most people will not have had the opportunity to investigate Bandyup in close detail, but I have, and I do not accept that it is a satisfactory response. I therefore hope we are going to hear advice from the minister that this has been prioritised and the government is looking at investing the money. I quote the report —
In relation to the adequacy of Unit 6 for pregnant women, the Committee notes the comments of the former Inspector in the Bandyup summary report that the bunks in Unit 6 would hinder the provision of emergency medical care.
That is exactly my assertion as well. I expect to get a response from the minister that is a little more circumspect than what has been provided to the committee.
The CHAIR: Hon Alison Xamon.
Hon ALISON XAMON: I hope that the minister recognises that not everybody in this chamber has had the opportunity to see these services firsthand. Recommendation 3 states —
Expand the accommodation for mothers and residential children at Bandyup Women’s Prison.
I wholeheartedly endorse that recommendation.
The report also goes on to talk about the impact of double-bunking on the provision of emergency medical care at Bandyup, how double-bunks have hindered the capacity to provide medical care and various concerns about mitigating strategies. The report also talked about the government’s proposal to build an infirmary at Bandyup Women’s Prison. At the time the Department of Justice said it had further progressed development and it would potentially include options to incorporate an infirmary facility, but that had not been finalised. The committee noted that the funds for the proposed infirmary are not specified in the budget papers for 2019–20 and recommended that an allocation be made. I specifically want to refer to recommendation 4, which states —
A subacute unit at Bandyup Women’s Prison be established.
A bunch of other matters have been raised on which I would like the opportunity to speak when we have the government’s report, which, as I say, is due on 15 December, but which we will not get a chance to consider until February next year, if not later than that.
I think it is really important that the government takes this report seriously. There are a lot of issues in this report that the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services has been bringing to the attention of this Parliament, sometimes for years. Some of the issues that have been brought to the attention of this Parliament in this report were the subject of election commitments by this government prior to it getting elected, specifically when it was talking about reform in the corrective services space. I, for one, want to see this reform given the priority that I think it absolutely deserves. When people go to prison, the one thing we want—whatever their underlying alcohol and other drug issues, whatever their mental health issues and whatever their underlying health issues—is for them to be able to access education and training so that upon their release, they are able to live the best lives that they possibly can and, ideally, be reunited with their families, particularly those women whose children have been removed and are in the care of child protection. The only way we can do that is by ensuring that all these matters are addressed.
Again, I thank the Standing Committee on Public Administration for taking a keen interest in this matter. I think it is very important. I look forward to making some further comments when I get the government’s response.
Response from Hon Nick Goiran
Resolved, on motion by Hon Alison Xamon, that consideration of the report be postponed to the next sitting of the Council.
Progress reported and leave granted to sit again, pursuant to standing orders.