‘Significant corruption risks’ in Victoria’s prison system amid surging inmate numbers, Ibac finds

The rapid growth of the Victorian prison population and poor workplace culture in prisons has led to “significant corruption risks”, a damning report into Victoria’s corrective services has found.

A special report released by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (Ibac) on Tuesday detailed accounts of excessive use of force by prison guards, inappropriate strip-searching, relationships between prison officers and inmates, smuggling of contraband, and prison guards accepting thousands of dollars in bribes.

Ibac called for urgent improvements in workplace culture, training, and supervision of staff. It also said the growing reliance on private prisons in Victoria had increased corruption risks.

The prison population in Victoria grew by 80% between 2010 and 2019, mostly due to an increase in prisoners held on remand following changes to bail laws.

The Andrews government has committed $1.8bn to prison expansion projects. The Ibac report said the influx of public money made it even more important the operation of prisons be “efficient and ethical”.

It warned that illicit drug use by prison guards was a “driver of corrupt conduct” because it left them vulnerable to coercion and grooming by prisoners. Ibac recommended prison staff be given specific training and support related to avoiding undue influence from criminal elements.

The report called for six-monthly updates on the implementation of a promise by the Department of Justice and Community Safety to introduce random drug tests for corrections staff.

It also recommended prison officers be required by law to report to the prison governor or Ibac if they have a reasonable belief another officer engaged in corrupt conduct.

“Preventing corruption is essential to achieving Corrections Victoria’s aims of rehabilitating offenders and keeping Victoria safe,” the report said. “Where corrections staff fail to act with integrity by smuggling contraband, misusing information, covering up wrongdoing and failing to uphold human rights, these aims are compromised.”

Ibac received 879 allegations of corruption at Victorian prisons between July 2018 and December 2020, accounting for 14% of all public sector allegations. Of those, 186 related to the use of force by prison officers, 62 alleged obstruction of justice, 37 concerned trafficking or smuggling contraband and 21 contained allegations of sexual harassment.

The report follows four investigations into alleged misconduct at the Port Philip private prison, the Melbourne Assessment Prison, Loddon prison near Castlemaine, and Dhurringile prison in northern Victoria.

Those investigations resulted in two prison workers being arrested and jailed for bribery and misconduct in public office offences after selling contraband tobacco to inmates.

In one case, an investigation found an Aboriginal welfare officer at Loddon prison was receiving money orders from family members and friends of prisoners in exchange for tobacco and cigarette papers. A search of his home discovered $12,900 worth of money orders in just six months and Ibac alleged he had received $27,000 in unidentified cash deposits in the previous year.

An investigation at Port Philip prison, run by security company G4S, found officers of the tactical response unit had assaulted two prisoners, one of whom had an intellectual disability. It also found officers had either neglected to turn on their body cameras or obscured the footage during a critical incident. And it found the incident reports compiled by a supervising officer were incomplete, failed to draw on all available evidence including CCTV and body camera footage, and failed to “critically examine the incidents”.

G4S was initially fined $200,000 by the Victorian government for serious professional misconduct but it was reduced to $75,000 after the company argued the incidents were “isolated” not “serious”. Two officers identified as having used excessive force against a prisoner were taken off tactical response group duties and given extra training but otherwise not penalised.

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