‘Dad’s Army’ diversion belies prison incompetence

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“The fevered announcement about the prospect of firearms in the prison diverted attention from the breath-taking incompetence of authorities in not having systems to prevent people casually breaking into the prison. Surely, a head or two should roll,” writes columnist JON STANHOPE.

THE Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC) has once again attracted national attention for all the wrong reasons.

Jon Stanhope.

The AMC – notoriously the most violent, underfunded and poorly run prison in Australia with prisoners routinely locked in their cells for 16 hours a day and rehabilitation an airy illusion – was recently placed under a “state of emergency” for almost a week.

The “state of emergency” was declared after a member of the public strolled nonchalantly up to the AMC’s perimeter fence, casually cut a hole to allow comfortable entry and left an early Christmas present for a sorely missed friend or loved one.

The incursion, when eventually discovered, resulted in a mixture of panic, grandstanding, fear mongering and poppycock with the authorities adamant firearms had been smuggled into the prison. 

A press conference featuring the executive director of the AMC, Jon Peach, and the Minister for Corrections, Shane Rattenbury, brought to mind an episode of “Dad’s Army” featuring Captain Mainwaring and Corporal Jones in which Corporal Jones, having mistaken a truck backfiring for the beginning of the German invasion of England, fixes his bayonet to his rifle and runs wildly in circles crying: “Don’t panic, don’t panic”.

The declaration of the state of emergency resulted in all prisoners being summarily confined to cells for a minimum 23 hours a day, supply of prescribed medication was disrupted, all visits were cancelled, even more sniffer dogs were imported and armed AFP officers were recruited.

After the detainees had endured six days of being locked all day in their cells, strip searches and sniffing dogs, the Minister for Corrections (and lapsed civil libertarian), Shane Rattenbury, lamely declared that it was a false alarm – the feared firearms existed only, it seems, in the minds of a horribly embarrassed and inept management.

The six-day search did yield a few mobile phones, a PlayStation and an assortment of illicit drugs. 

Replacement phones and drugs will by now have been reacquired and life inside the prison will have returned to its established routine of daily lockdown and confinement to cells, boredom, tedium, violence and drug taking. It may take a little longer to obtain a replacement PlayStation.

I am not by nature a conspiracy theorist, but I do understand the political process and political thinking. I have been there and done that. When in government and faced with a stuff up or preparing for the release of a critical report or another increase in rates, create a diversion. 

The declaration of the state of emergency at the AMC and the fevered announcement about the prospect of firearms having been introduced into the prison very conveniently diverted attention from the breath-taking incompetence of prison authorities in not having systems to prevent people casually breaking into the prison. Surely, a head or two should roll.

However, once declared, the state of emergency provided perfect cover to conduct a trawl of the entire prison in pursuit of drugs. I have observed previously that Corrections Minister Rattenbury and senior management at the prison are obsessed by the existence and use of illicit drugs inside the AMC.

If the Minister and management devoted as much time, effort and resources to drug rehabilitation and responding to the causes of illicit drug use by detainees as they did to their punitive war on drugs inside the prison everyone would be far better off. 

Rattenbury’s war on drugs in the AMC is futile. It is unwinnable and he should apply the philosophy he espouses on drug use in the community to drug use in the AMC. To not do so is hypocritical and weak.

Be that as it may, the question that continues to haunt senior management at the AMC, as they wipe the egg from their faces is: “If it wasn’t a gun, what was it that was wrapped up in the errant parcel?”

I think I may have the answer. I am aware of a loving mother with a son incarcerated in the AMC who, being concerned about the mind-numbing and debilitating effect the absence of structured activity or rehabilitation has on inmates who are locked in their cells for 16 hours a day, including the very real fear that it drives them to use drugs, posted a few books of word puzzles to him to give him something to do and hopefully assist him with his writing and spelling.

The AMC refused to accept the puzzle books and sent them back to the mother by return mail with a strong admonition the books were prohibited at the AMC and effectively constituted contraband. 

There’s your answer. The mystery article in the smuggled parcel was quite possibly a book of word puzzles that a stubborn and loving mother was determined to get to her son by hook or by crook. 


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Jon Stanhope
Jon Stanhope was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only Chief Minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.

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