TOXIC CELL SHIFT: Overflowing prisons in crisis

A PRISONER who was moved between Wangaratta and Wodonga police cells has told the Victorian Ombudsman he suffered stress and depression because of the time spent in police custody.

Ombudsman George Brouwer highlighted the man’s experience in a damning investigation into deaths and harm in custody released yesterday.

“Prisoner F” wrote to the Ombudsman in November to complain about the stress caused as a result of being moved between several stations while in custody.

Prisoner F said he was initially held at the Wangaratta police cells for eight days, before being moved to Wodonga’s cells for six days and then back to Wangaratta for several more days.

He was then taken to the Melbourne Assessment Prison before being moved to police cells at Mildura, then to Swan Hill and finally Melton.

“Prisoner F maintains that he suffered stress and depression as a result of his time spent in police custody,” Mr Brouwer said.

Beechworth Anglican priest Mother Bethley Sullivan sees prisoners almost daily while working at the town’s neighbourhood centre and says they deserve compassion.

The Ombudsman’s report found there was a crisis in overcrowded prisons and police cells.

The crisis was caused by inadequate beds in the prison system, leading to greater risk for prisoners that may only get worse.

The report found the Coalition government’s tougher sentencing and parole laws compounded overcrowding.

It warned prison deaths and violence were likely to increase because a new men’s prison was not due to be opened until 2017.

“People detained in custody in Victoria face a greater risk of harm than at any time in the past decade,” it said.

“Prisoners are placed in overcrowded and at times sub-standard conditions with a risk of physical and sexual assault, and with limited access to appropriate healthcare services.”

North East police cells have been experiencing the effects of overcrowding since 2012 and the minimum security Beechworth Correctional Centre since at least July.

On Sunday, Wangaratta police cells were filled to one short of capacity with 13 prisoners, all from Melbourne, reflecting another wave of prisoners being shuffled throughout the state in what one officer described as “a constant game of chess”.

Officers in Benalla had previously been taken off rest days to cover custody shifts at the Seymour station.

Wodonga police voiced frustrations last July: “We’re playing the role of jail warders instead of police officers.”

The Beechworth centre, which recently announced 50 more beds on its 160-bed capacity, has used fold-out beds since October to accommodate growing numbers.

Mother Sullivan said overcrowding was having an effect on the men she has spoken to.

“It doesn’t do their health any good,” she said.

“It can lead to depression ... to further anxiety and stress.”

It was a community problem that needed compassion.

“They are human beings, any of us can take the wrong fork in the road and too often we ignore that,” she said.

“There are people who say ‘They’re only crims’, but they are somebody’s son, they’re somebody’s husband’. Who are we to condemn them?”