Allegations of a long-standing culture of misogyny and bullying at prisons near Ballarat by Corrections Victoria officers have been made by former staff, who have spoken exclusively to The Courier.
These are their stories.
Renee Pickert felt she had found the perfect job when she was accepted into Corrections Victoria as a prison officer in 2015.
Always curious about psychology and the workings of the human mind, the-then 25-year-old left a job in customer support for one more challenging for her.
"The forever changing experiences each day in there; my interest in people and people's behaviours sent me to it," Pickert says.
"There is a lot that happens in prison that people don't see, and what you can do - things like case-management jobs - I really took a lot out of it. For three-and-a-half years I did."
After completing her training and placement, Pickert took on a full-time position at Langi Kal Kal in March 2015. She says she thrived in the environment, focusing her energy on security and gaining a position in an emergency response group. Transferring to Hopkins Correctional Centre in December 2015, she was promoted to a senior officer role by 2017.
During her time at Hopkins, Pickert began to experience the attention of a convicted sex offender - a serial rapist. He cannot be named.
Around August 2016, the male prisoner, who had previously been at Langi Kal Kal, was placed onto Pickert's fill-in caseload for management. The prisoner began to direct all his questions to Pickert, and after returning to work from days off, Pickert heard the prisoner had written a letter indicating his attraction to her.
Pickert was not shown the letter or made aware of its contents; to this day she has not been informed of what was written. Instead she was told by a supervisor the matter had been dealt with, the prisoner had been told of his misdemeanour, and management had no further concerns about the matter.
Pickert says it was clear the letter referred to her, and the lack of detail about what had been written did concern her.
"But being still only 12 months into the gig, I put my faith into the supervisor who was advising me, that we were OK," says Pickert.
The prisoner was left in Pickert's unit for another month despite the discovery of the letter; she was told his excuse was that he was homosexual, despite his victims being exclusively female. The prisoner was serving a long sentence, and had previous convictions interstate.
"He was a very isolated prisoner, mentally unstable and heavily medicated," Pickert says.
"I was doing one-on-one checks for duress alarms and similar. He began lingering around me, bringing his guitar out and sitting right near the console when there was a female officer and myself in there.
"He was continually approaching the desk, asking for a female officer to go and have a speak with him. Eventually he was taken off our caseload and put onto a senior's, and that was our reassurance."
The prisoner was left on the accommodation unit Pickert had responsibility for.
"He kept coming up to the (supervision) desk, and naturally you don't want to piss off prisoners, but I kept shooing him away, shooing him away," Pickert says.
"They had all this on camera, but he still kept trying to get near; he'd come up during mealtimes and ask me what I meant by my gestures, and I told him clearly: 'that's me telling you to f**k off'. I was that blunt at this point."
The prisoner became more aggressive in his attempted dealings with Pickert, expressing violent frustration when denied access to her. After striking a pole on an occasion, he was counselled by two male officers, who returned to Pickert's station and warned her about being alone with the prisoner.
'He is really not well,' the officers told Pickert. There was then a conversation held with several senior officers about what had happened; Pickert was not part of the meeting.
The next day she found she had been assigned to conduct a mouth check with the same prisoner. Pickert said she chose to conduct the check herself, under a camera and with a nurse present, rather than guarding the line of prisoners waiting and having to listen to the offender talking.
Nevertheless, while waiting in the line to be checked, Pickert says the prisoner began to talk about her.
He began to spiel this weird mumbo-jumbo about getting knives out of my back and getting the snakes to the surface
"He asked me if I was angry with him; I told him I wasn't. 'Good', he said: 'I'm not angry with you either.'"
Pickert begins to weep softly at this point.
"Then he told me not to worry; that he was going to get those knives out of my back, get those snakes to the surface, because all the other officers were stopping our relationship."
He was moved, Pickert says, to another prison, but not as a punishment; it was called a 'progression transmission'. This made it appear as there had been no incident lodged with Corrections Victoria. Pickert says this is a common practice.
Pickert discovered the prisoner had asked senior staff if she lived in Ballarat, and had made overtures to applying for parole in Ballarat, as his prison term was due to end. This was despite Pickert having deflected his attempts to find where she lived.
Never, says Pickert, was she told by any prison staff how the issue was to be handled professionally. She never spoke to the Prisoner Intelligence Unit (PIU). Instead, she says she found in correspondence that senior staff did not believe Pickert was telling the truth; that she was in a relationship with the prisoner.
Pickert is openly gay; her sexuality was known to staff. Their reasoning for the conclusion, she says, was 'females do that.'
She transferred back to Langi Kal Kal and chose to report what had happened with the prisoner to PIU there. She found the prisoner already knew she had moved; he had successfully concealed another letter to Pickert with a fellow inmate and had it sent to Langi Kal Kal.
Her despair at the maladministration of the system at Hopkins Correctional Centre is palpable.
"Everything is swept under the rug," she says.
"Imagine the look for management if this was investigated: they found 'this had been neglected' and 'that hadn't been done properly.'
Pickert went to Victoria Police with her concerns. The officers were appalled, she says, at the dangerous situation she had been placed in by the poor management of the prisoner by the department.
One day before the prisoner was due for release, Victoria Police obtained a five-year personal safety intervention order against him for Renee Pickert.
The damage was done. Pickert says she effectively had a nervous breakdown.
"My biggest fear and frustration with what work did... you can see the intervention order was only placed by VicPol themselves, one day before he was released... because my workplace did nothing. At Hopkins I put my faith in the people I was reporting this to, and it came back to bite me.
"If I had discovered none of this - if I hadn't taken out the IVO - he knew where I worked, I was going to drive out through the gates one day and he... he believed that he loved me, but if he had a bunch of flowers and a box of chocolates, and it's the day I say 'NO', then I'm the next victim, and I don't see how that headline was any better than them dealing with it."
Pickert is currently not working.
The Courier acknowledges that the majority of staff working in our prisons, male and female, do an outstanding job in some of the most fraught situations imaginable. They are confronted daily with the extremes of human behaviour, and with offenders who have committed atrocious crimes. The staff of our prisons deserve a workplace that supports them fully and makes no allowance for bullying, harassment, or any form of sexual abuse.
- Lifeline 13 11 14, Beyond Blue 1300 224 636