By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
The Western Australian Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) has released graphic footage of inmates being beaten and pepper sprayed by guards in the state’s prisons.
The footage, taken in 2016 and 2017, has been released as part of investigations into the mistreatment of inmates at the hands of prison staff.
In one piece of footage, a security officer is dealing with a minimum security inmate who holding onto a door handle.
Within less than 10 seconds of the inmate refusing to let go, the officer requests spray from his colleague and uses it almost immediately on the man.
A second incident involving the same officer, also captured on CCTV footage, shows a man taken into custody for a suspected breach of bail. The man becomes agitated and, although he eventually agrees to return to his cell, he is doused with capsicum spray after he gets inside.
The CCC says the use of capsicum spray was inconsistent with Department of Justice policies because of the “unacceptable risk of hydraulic eye damage”. It noted that the officer failed to report the use of the spray, again against departmental requirements.
An even more damning piece of footage shows several officers violently throwing an inmate to the ground during a transfer to another unit, after he had allegedly assaulted another inmate.
While security officers are required to report the incidents, the CCC says that many of the reports are incomplete, inaccurate or inadequate.
It says that its investigations have uncovered a culture of ‘collusion’ by prison staff in the reporting of incidents, and the systemic use of excessive force on prisoners.
A culture of misconduct
The CCC has says the prevalence of such incidents not only “… compromise[s] the integrity of the prison system, being an environment that not only allows misconduct, but fosters it; where some officers show little or no respect for rules, processes and protocols; where prison officers keep information from head office and where there is a reluctance on the part of some officers to report or identify misconduct.”
The Commission has a made a series of recommendations including better training and encouraging the confidential reporting of misconduct. It has also called for the reprimanding of officers who fail to report incidents, make inaccurate statements or omit important information
The Prison Officers’ Union has responded by saying its members work in extremely hostile and dangerous environments whereby they are often forced to make “split-second decisions under severe circumstances”.
Overcrowded and understaffed
Research has consistently found that overcrowding has contributed to heightened tensions behind prison walls.
Cramped and unhygienic conditions, inadequate access to medical and psychological services, and restrictions to basic amenities can all contribute to tempers being flared – for both inmates and prison guards.
Mistreatment by prison staff
But those who accept the role of a prison officer, and who are in a position of great power over the inmates in their charge, are nevertheless prohibited from abusing that power by assaulting prisoners and otherwise acting outside the rules of their employment.
Indeed, turning a blind eye to mistreatment can have a snowballing effect.
Earlier this year, Northern Territory police decided not to bring criminal charges against officers accused of mistreating young people at Don Dale youth detention centre, despite damning evidence of widespread abuses including the tear gassing and masking of young boys.
After the Don Dale story hit the mainstream media, the pressure increased on the Australian Federal government to sign the international treaty OPCAT – Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. Having now ratified the Protocol, Australia has an obligation to provide better oversight in our prisons and detention centres to prevent the mistreatment and abuse of inmates and detainees.
A better way
And while Australia locks people up in record numbers, other countries have found a better way of dealing with those who are alleged to have broken the law.
In several countries including the Netherlands, crime preventative measures as well as rehabilitation and alternatives to prison time have significantly reduced costs to the tax payer while at the same time reducing reoffending rates.
Such countries have recognised that imprisoning people increases the chances that they will commit offences in the future, rather than decreasing it.
Meanwhile, our nation is making it harder for those suspected of crimes to be released on bail, increasing the number and reach of criminal offences, increasing maximum penalties and ultimately locking more people away for longer.