The Victorian Ombudsman has accused Corrections Victoria and the state’s prisons of frequently failing to comply with their legal obligations, including failing to act on a long-standing pattern of serious misconduct by a prison officer.

Ombudsman George Brouwer’s annual report revealed that the officer at Tarrengower Prison, near Maldon, allowed prisoners to have access to confidential prison documentation and employed prisoners to perform administrative duties on his behalf. He also failed to verify the accuracy of work by prisoners at Tarrengower, a small, minimum-security women’s prison, failed to conduct searches in accordance with the prison director’s instructions, and allowed falsification of prison records.

The Ombudsman investigated for more than a year after being tipped off by a whistleblower in February 2010.

“I have found that Corrections Victoria and prisons frequently fail to comply with their obligations,” he said in the report, tabled in state Parliament.

Corrections Victoria spokesman Sam Bishop refused to comment on the specific allegation, but said: “Corrections Victoria expects all staff uphold the highest levels of professionalism and ethics. When they fail to meet those standards, they are investigated and face strict sanctions.

“All staff working in prisons receive comprehensive training and are aware of the expectations. When staff fail to meet these high standards of professionalism or ethical behaviour, there are a range of sanctions available, ranging from counselling to dismissal.”

Executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre Phil Lynch said the incident proved there was no adequate watchdog to oversee people in positions of power within the prison system.

“This kind of case is indicative of the need to establish an independent body to oversee, monitor and report on conditions in prisons,” he said.

As a result of his investigation, the Ombudsman made recommendations to the department about “the suitability of the officer’s employment, management at the prison, policies, training and auditing”.  He said the officer no longer worked at Tarrengower, although it was not clear whether he resigned or was sacked.

“A series of ongoing complaints and concerns regarding the officer’s conduct, including concerns raised at a local level and with the general manager over a lengthy period of time, were not adequately addressed,” the Ombudsman said in the report.

“In one instance, the Office of Correctional Services Review conducted an investigation which found there was ‘evidence of a pattern of inappropriate behaviour by’ the officer. It recommended the officer be referred to the Department of Justice (the department) Human Resources unit for investigation of possible misconduct.

“However no substantive investigation was conducted. In addition, the supervisor did not adequately monitor the officer’s activities.”

Tarrengower, which holds 54 women, has a history of staff misconduct. Last year there were allegations of an illicit affair between an officer and an inmate.

It recently became one of the first Victorian jails at which prisoners will be issued with free condoms. Conjugal visits are allowed at the jail and it was also in the news earlier this year when a welfare cheat inmate won the right to continue IVF treatment while behind bars.

The Ombudsman also reported an increase in complaints about the prison — 18 in the past financial year, compared with 11 in 2009-10 and six in the previous financial year.  Although only a tiny fraction of the 2000 prison complaints dealt with by the Ombudsman in the past financial year, they accounted for a third of Tarrengower’s  prisoner capacity.

Bishop said Corrections Victoria had a formal process to deal with prisoners’ complaints  that applied with to all prisons. “Prisoners can make complaints direct  to the prison through their case manager or prison staff, and can raise complaints with external bodies such as the Independent Prison Visitors and Ombudsman Victoria,” he said.

However, Lynch said that Independent Prison Visitors was a toothless body: “They have no power or authority.

“They can’t compel Corrections to take any recommended actions and they don’t report publicly. There is no transparency or public accountability.”

Peter Fray

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