26 September 2023

Ombudsman makes noise over prison hearings

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A Victorian Ombudsman investigation has found prisoner disciplinary hearings are still done “in the dark” and the potential for unfairness remains rife.

Victorian Ombudsman, Deborah Glass said her Investigation Report, Investigation into good practice when conducting prison disciplinary hearings, on the prison disciplinary process which deals with prisoners who broke rules, also revealed that prisoners with mental health issues and cognitive impairment were not always offered adequate support.

“The investigation into prisoner hearings, which sees about 10,000 conducted annually across Victoria’s 14 prisons, also found undocumented pre-hearing discussions were potentially widespread and prisoners were not given written reasons for decisions or sufficient information about the charge, leading to procedural unfairness,” Ms Glass said.

“It also identified a lack of discretion in taking forward minor offences to a formal disciplinary process – adding to the burden on prisons, the prison officer and prisoners,” she said.

“There was also a perception of bias identified in some cases with the same prison officer issuing the charge and then presiding over the hearing, and an overall lack of transparency when requests for different hearing officers were refused.”

Ms Glass said that despite improvements being implemented, following a report by the previous Ombudsman in 2011 on the same issue, reports and complaints to her Office continued.

“Fairness for prisoners may not be a popular subject, but the lack of it damages our reputation as a civilised society,” she said.

“Disciplinary hearings in Victorian prisons are still carried out in the dark with insufficient scrutiny, oversight or transparency.”

Ms Glass said while some good practices and decisions were observed, the potential for unfairness was still rife.

She said prisoners found guilty in the hearings could lose opportunities for parole; privileges such as telephone calls and out-of-cell time; and, in some cases, contact visits with family.

The Ombudsman made six recommendations to the Department of Justice and Community Safety, that it implement an internal review mechanism for disciplinary hearings; establish a dedicated team responsible for hearings; implement a strategy to reduce the number of minor offences that proceed to the hearing stage; require that Hearing Officers record brief written reasons for hearing outcomes; implement measures to improve prisoner understanding of the hearing process; and integrate disciplinary hearing processes and files into a centralised electronic records system.

“The recommendations I make in this Report would not only increase fairness and transparency in a notoriously opaque process, they support good decision-making,” Ms Glass said.

The Ombudsman’s 87-page Report can be accessed at this PS News link.

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