UPDATE: Prison officers crying out for help in wake of riot

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Inside the Alexander Maconochie Centre. Photo: Andrew Finch

LATEST government figures have proven that correctional officers that subdued a Canberra prison riot last year were left little more than sitting ducks after training fell short of recommended standards.

The blame landed squarely on the feet of ACT Corrective Services operating under the Justice and Community Safety Directorate over failing to deliver all aspects of mandatory training outlined in the enterprise agreement for officers at Alexander Maconochie Centre.

But Minister for Corrections Mick Gentleman attributed a delay in training programs in 2020 to the pandemic after ACT Corrective Services had recommenced they only be conducted in a covid-safe way.

“We want to ensure corrections staff are adequately trained, equipped and supported to do their jobs safely and effectively,” he said.

But the ACT opposition felt the new figures pertaining to the riot specifically demonstrates the need for government to stop “dragging their feet” on delivering the mandatory training.

Mr Gentleman, in response to a question on notice from the ACT opposition, provided what was a sorry tale of the number of officers that were not fit to run a prison, let alone control and manage a riot despite a review noting their “professional” conduct.

The incident counted 27 inmates who refused to return to their cells, instead damaging doors and CCTV equipment, and lighting fires, forcing guards to escort fire crews through the jail all the while holding shields that contributed to a stand-off lasting three hours.

The ACT Inspector of Correctional Services’ report into the riotous incident showed that while corrections staff responded well, the government accepts that “there is more work needed to ensure they can effectively perform their roles”.

“The findings around a lack of staff support, training and access to equipment particularly are concerning to me,” Mr Gentleman said.

“Acting Commissioner Johnson is urgently reviewing the recommendations and developing a plan for staff training and procedures.”

The figures have since revealed that 181 officers were unable to complete their training in the use of force that is 53 more unskilled officers than in 2018.

That rubbed off onto 81 officers not completing training for cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), which is up another 30 over the same period of time.

The most staggering increase in light of the riot was that 147 staff failed to complete the fire awareness training, up from 90 in less than three years.

The high number of officers not receiving training in fire awareness is consistent with the findings of a staff survey that was conducted by the Inspector of Correctional Services in that report on the November 2020 riot.

The survey indicated more than 76 per cent of staff reported they had not participated in a training exercise for incidents on detainees refusing to enter cells, riots and fire hazards.

More than 70 per cent also stated that they felt their training was “ineffective” in preparing the officers to respond to an incident.

Mr Gentleman believed that staffing constraints have “contributed” to officers not receiving mandatory training.

Most of the officers were pressured to take on longer and more frequent shifts.

“The increase in overtime for corrections officers is concerning and it demonstrates the pressure they are under. We are working to implement immediate changes to relieve this pressure, including recruiting more corrections officers,” Mr Gentleman said.

Weeks after the riot, Mr Gentleman formed oversight committee to bring ACT Corrective Services staff, the Public Sector Union and oversight bodies together to find solutions for the inner workings of the prison.

The committee held a “very productive” first meeting on March 24, Mr Gentleman said.

A “blueprint for change” is being established for the AMC and court transport unit to oversee the implementation of recommendations from recent reports and inquiries.

“This will include an urgent focus on bringing training capabilities up to date, examining staffing levels and rostering to ensure staff development and wellbeing,” he said.

Canberra Liberal spokesperson for corrections, Elizabeth Kikkert, is asking for commissioner Ray Johnson to place the needs of officers high on a list of corrective services’ priorities.

She has pointed out that the government’s own figures and the survey of officers clearly has shown understaffing issues date “as far back as 2018”.

“The correctional officers’ enterprise agreement of 2018-2021 states that there will be mandatory training days for corrections officers, who are required to maintain their competence in CPR, fire awareness, fire drills and use of force,” Ms Kikkert said.

“This is unacceptable and irresponsible for the ACT government to not live up to its own agreement and I call on the Minister to rectify the poor treatment of Corrections officers immediately.

“The government is lucky to have had such professional corrections officers who, despite being unclear on their instructions during emergencies, were able to adapt and contain the riot so effectively.”

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