Jail cells under strain

Congestion in Victoria’s overflowing prison structure is placing strain on Latrobe Valley’s law and order system while jeopardising prisoners’ rehabilitation prospects, a leading Morwell lawyer has warned.

Family and criminal law specialist Mark Woods, of Gippsland law firm Tyler Tipping and Woods, said a concerning trend of shipping prisoners and people remanded in custody across the state in line with holding cell availability had reached alarming levels in past months.

“Experience tells us that the people who are sentenced to shorter terms of imprisonment – somewhere between a month and three months – are in fact not going to prison at all, they are being shuffled around various police stations where a bed can be found,” Mr Woods said.

Mr Woods said the situation was creating a “pressure cooker” environment in police holding cells, where people on remand – innocent until proven guilty – were being held in cells with “hardened” and sometimes violent criminals.

Mr Woods’ comments came after the Morwell Police Station’s holding cells reached capacity over the weekend, with Traralgon station cells opened to handle the overflow.

Latrobe Police Service Area Inspector Mick West said the Morwell holding cells, which had been gazetted to hold a maximum of 17 people, had been at capacity numerous times over the past two years.

“We have got the busiest court complex outside the Melbourne area, and because of the build up in the system around the state, we are always going to have a few more prisoners than we would like to have,” Insp West said.

“We have gazetted strength to look after this workload and the staff to manage our capacity, but my people have got other things they could be doing.”

Police and Emergency Services opposition spokesperson Jacinta Allan said the added responsibility of police stations having to mind extra prisoners and people on remand was taking police away from their frontline operational duties.

“This strain on police resources and the fact operational police are being used to take care of prisoners in police cells is because the Napthine Government has not moved quickly enough to (open more) police cells under significant pressure,” Ms Allan said.

While a spokesperson for Attorney-General Robert Clark acknowledged the Coalition Governments’ tougher crime stance was causing the increased prisoner numbers, he said the government was undertaking one of the largest prison expansion programs in Victorian history.

The spokesperson said a total of 631 beds had opened since the Coalition came to office, with 1900 still in the pipeline, adding Corrections Victoria had also installed temporary accommodation at various prison locations in the interim.

“The Victorian Government, Victoria Police, Corrections Victoria and the courts are working closely together to schedule prisoner appearances in court while new prison places are being constructed,” the spokesperson said.

However Mr Woods said the constant reshuffling of prisoners was having significant impact on prisoners’ rehabilitation prospects.

“You can’t have a proper treatment regime when you spend two weeks at one prison and then two week in a cell somewhere else; it just doesn’t happen like that,” Mr Woods said.

“Someone with a chronic ice issue needs treatment and need to be monitored – the fiction is that Corrections Victoria can monitor them, but they simply can’t if they are doing the jailhouse rock.”