‘A disturbing picture’: use of excessive force endemic in Victorian remand centres, says ombudsman

The use of excessive force against Victorian prisoners is “persistent and endemic” in the state’s remand centres, with an ombudsman’s report concluding a culture of silence is a barrier to uncovering the full extent of the problem.

The report by the Victorian ombudsman, Deborah Glass, which was tabled in state parliament on Wednesday, found officers were failing to use body-worn cameras as required and that incidents often occurred in “CCTV blind spots”, which raised suspicion about officers’ actions and motives.

The report compiled findings from eight separate investigations into allegations from prisoners who said they were subjected to unreasonable force such as punching or choking between 2018 and 2020 at the Metropolitan Remand Centre and Metropolitan Assessment Prison. Injuries in the eight incidents ranged from minor bruising to a broken wrist. All matters were referred by the Independent Broad-based Anticorruption Commission (Ibac).

The ombudsman concluded that unreasonable force was used in four out of the eight cases. But the report concluded that all uncovered “concerning behaviour or poor decision making” by prison officers.

“The evidence from these investigations … illustrates the persistent and endemic nature of the problem, despite the efforts of Corrections Victoria,” Glass said.

“Allegations of unreasonable use of force do not appear to be declining and the incidents in this report present a disturbing picture.”

In one instance involving a man with an acquired brain injury, the prisoner became upset after discovering he would not be attending court as planned. Upon being taken to his cell he responded with verbal threats that resulted in a physical altercation with five officers.

The report was unable to substantiate that unreasonable force had been used but concluded the situation could have been avoided if the officers had taken into account the man’s circumstances and the news he would not be attending court.

Glass said there were instances where the use of force was a first resort and escalated a situation.

“People with acquired brain injuries can exhibit very challenging behaviours and well-trained prison officers should be able to deal with a situation to respond to the behaviour without needing to use force,” she said.

The report also concluded that prisoners were often reluctant to cooperate with investigations due to fear of reprisal and being perceived as less credible than officers.

The report made 12 recommendations, including that Corrections Victoria increase prison officer accountability and compliance regarding the use of body-worn cameras and improve CCTV coverage.

The ombudsman also recommended reviewing the effectiveness of training in de-escalation techniques.

Corrections Victoria accepted the recommendation regarding accountability for the use of body-worn cameras and accepted in principle the recommendation regarding improving compliance with the devices.

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