Christine Nixon has a difficult task: cleaning up the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC), the ACT prison notorious for assaults on staff and allegations of racism.
Australia’s first woman police commissioner, Ms Nixon was appointed this week to lead an oversight committee charged with improving the AMC and the ACT Corrective Services Court Transport Unit (CTU), which transports people between detention and court.
Ms Nixon was formerly Assistant Commissioner of Police in NSW (1994–2001), and Victorian Chief Commissioner of Police (2001–2009). Her entry in the Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in 20th-Century Australia credits her with ridding the state police of corruption; turning the police force into a human service; and improving policing for women officers, juveniles, and victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. As head of the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority (2009–10), she said she helped communities to understand issues and solve them.
“You’ve got to let people come together, contribute their own experiences, how they think they should be going forward,” Ms Nixon said.
Her experience in reform may well be needed. The ABC revealed last year that prison officers were hospitalised, spat on, punched, headbutted, pushed down the stairs, and beaten with chairs, while a prisoner broke one officer’s neck. According to The RiotACT, three staff members had sought care in mental hospitals, while many took sick leave due to stress. Staff also complained of feeling powerless and being unable to maintain or impose discipline. Last year, protesting prisoners set fire to cells and the yard.
The view from the other side of the bars was also grim – particularly for Aboriginal people. An Indigenous man – victim of a bashing that left him in a coma for a week – died of a drug overdose in 2016; Aboriginal inmates have been assaulted, and relatives were not notified; and staff have allegedly played ‘Hangman’ with the names of Aboriginal prisoners. Last month, an Aboriginal woman prisoner – a rape survivor – alleged that she was strip searched in front of male prisoners.
A survey in 2019 for the Healthy Prison Review of the Alexander Maconochie Centre revealed that 83.7% of staff surveyed disagreed the AMC was run well, while 77.3% complained management did not make changes when needed.
Staff felt they needed more training in self-care (such as dealing with stress); awareness of detainee needs such as disability, Indigeneity, mental health, and drugs; case management; and emergency responses.
The Court Transport Unit is in better shape; a 2020 review found that the CTU was highly regarded by the key stakeholders it serviced. Nevertheless, some CTU staff were unsure what to do in emergency situations, including evacuations, that might occur at court premises; some wanted more CTU-specific training, including court etiquette and processes, and familiarity with vehicles; some officers had not completed mandatory training courses; and many officers were uneasy about working with children and young people, especially in relation to using force and restraints.
Mick Gentleman, ACT Minister for Corrections, announced Ms Nixon’s appointment on Wednesday.
“I’m committed to addressing the issues raised with me by staff and in recent reviews, particularly ensuring our staff are well-trained and resourced,” Mr Gentleman said.
“Ms Nixon’s substantial experience in reform over her decorated career means she is well positioned to lead discussions around culture to drive solutions that support staff.”
The Committee will also comprise representatives from the Official Visitors, the Human Rights Commission, the Indigenous community, the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), the AMC, ACT Corrective Services, and the Justice and Community Safety Directorate. The members will be nominated within the next couple of weeks.
“As chair of this Oversight Committee, I will take the lead role to ensure the representatives’ voices are heard and that support is available as we work towards building a culture of trust,” Ms Nixon said.
Ms Nixon said she would get things done quickly. “It is a 12-month oversight committee, and we’d like to think by the end of it we will have made substantial changes and been able to implement them with the corrections institution itself.”
She said the committee would begin by addressing easier issues – staffing levels, leadership development training, and rostering. That would clear the way to making corrections staff and people in custody feel safer.
“Often these changes can be systemic changes; processes and systems are the easy ones to fix. The attitudes and behaviours of people are a little more complicated.”
Ms Nixon acknowledged staff, inmates, and the community had concerns about the AMC. “These were serious issues,” she said. The Committee would talk to those involved and the CPSU, and draw on expertise from Corrections ACT and the Justice and Community Safety Directorate.
“You can’t just impose change,” Ms Nixon said. “You’ve got to look to see what are the systems that might facilitate that. How do you deal with the culture? What has been done so far? What has worked and what hasn’t? And then we can help contribute to that.”
Ms Nixon will be paid $2,000 a day plus GST, Estimates Hearings revealed.
Canberra Liberals MLA Elizabeth Kikkert said Ms Nixon was being paid to do a job the ACT Government should already be doing. She suggested the appointment was a means for Mr Gentleman to be “totally hands-off” in his management of the AMC, and to avoid personal responsibility for the government’s “failures”.
Mrs Kikkert said the government had taken too long to respond to the recommendations made in 2019.
“Why does the Minister need another layer of bureaucracy that has the potential to slow things down even more? Any delay in the process is putting AMC staff and their workplace safety at even more risk,” she said.
Earlier this month, the government rejected Mrs Kikkert’s call for an investigation into systemic racism at the AMC, angering Indigenous health advocate Julie Tongs, CEO of Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Services.
Ms Tongs said she thought Ms Nixon – “a high-profile woman and the top cop in Victoria for many years” – would do a good job, but she thought the inquiry itself, focused on staff training and culture, did not go far enough.
“It’s not going to address the entrenched issues around racism in that place,” Ms Tongs said. “That’s something that you don’t fix overnight. Unless you start to address it and actually acknowledge that it’s there, you’re not going to change anything.”
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