Staff at the Alexander Maconochie Centre urgently need to be trained to deal with critical incidents, the Office of the ACT Inspector of Correctional Services (OICS) recommended this week in a report investigating the November prison riots.
On the night of 10 November 2020, detainees lit fires in the cell unit and exercise yard; destroyed furniture and equipment, causing damage estimated at $5.7 million; and threatened staff, armed themselves with homemade weapons, and threw objects at AMC officers and firefighters. Fortunately, no staff or firefighters were injured.
AMC officers and firefighters put out fires, helped by ACT Policing and ACT Ambulance Service. The report noted that AMC staff – many of whom were on duty for 20 hours by the time the incident was resolved – were exposed to heavy chemical-laden black smoke and worked in drenched clothes.
The OICS praised AMC staff for their efforts, but said most were “ill-prepared by way of training” to deal with a riot.
“This was a very serious incident that lasted about nine hours, and the fact that it was resolved without injuries to staff or detainees is a testament to the professional response of Corrections Officers and ACT Fire and Rescue firefighters in very difficult and hazardous circumstances,” ACT Inspector of Correctional Services, Neil McAllister, said.
“While AMC staff did a great job on the night, many were unprepared for dealing with the situation.
“Had it not been for the leadership of a few experienced senior Corrections Officers in the frontline, things could have turned out very badly for both staff and detainees.”
The report also commended ACT Fire and Rescue officers for their “extraordinary” work. “When they attend fires, they do not expect to be attacked by the people they are trying to protect and save. This was not a ‘normal day at the office’.”
However, the report criticised former Corrective Services Commissioner, Jon Peach, who went to the AMC rather than establishing a Head Office Incident Command Suite. The report stated that Mr Peach acted in a manner staff perceived as taking over command from the AMC general manager, including giving directions to Corrections Officers dealing with the incident.
“This intervention may have undermined the authority of the general manager in the eyes of AMC staff and external agencies in the Incident Control Centre (e.g. ACT Policing, ACT Fire and Rescue).”
The OICS also blamed Mr Peach’s actions for causing confusion, outweighing any benefit from his intervention. “In our opinion, the Commissioner should not have attended the AMC unless requested to by the GM.”
According to the OICS report, ACT Corrective Services did not contemplate a scenario where major fires were lit during a riot, even though this commonly occurs in prison riots in Australia and overseas. The Corrections Management (Code Grey – Detainee Disturbance or Riot) Procedure 2014 (No 1) and the Emergency Management Framework Major Disturbance Plan require the AMC to notify the ACTP. However, a Code Grey was not called at any time during the incident, although staff responded as if one had been called and ACTP attended of their own volition.
The Canberra Liberals have criticised the ACT government for allowing prison inmates to smoke and to carry lighters. Shadow Minister for Corrections, Elizabeth Kikkert, said the ACT was one of the only jurisdictions in Australia where smoking was allowed in prisons.
“Surely, in a place like Australia, the risks of fire should be obvious and at the forefront of emergency preparedness,” Mrs Kikkert said. “In a volatile place like a prison, this should have been a no-brainer.
“I will attempt to explain it by tweaking a well-known phrase: ‘If you let detainees play with fire, you’re going to get burnt’… and also set fire to $5.7 million dollars’ worth of tax-payer money.”
The report made 13 recommendations, including updating policies and plans, holding training exercises, auditing equipment, and embedding a senior training officer at the prison.
Minister for Corrections Mick Gentleman has tasked Acting Commissioner Ray Johnson to review the recommendations and develop an action plan for staff training and procedures when he begins next week.
“The findings around a lack of staff support, training, and access to equipment are particularly concerning to me,” Mr Gentleman said.
“I’m committed to ensuring Corrections staff are adequately trained, equipped, and supported to do their jobs safely and effectively.”
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