In every story The Courier has written on this issue, we acknowledge the tremendously important and difficult work staff in Victorian prisons do. It's a fraught job, dealing with people who have committed crimes - sometimes awful crimes - been convicted, incarcerated and are moving towards, in most cases, rehabilitation. Our prison staff give astonishing service in a crucial system.
But that system is in crisis. A soaring prison population has placed enormous pressure on staff and infrastructure. At the same time other factors, some unique to the region, are having an impact on its efficient functioning.
One is the disjunct relationship between long-serving prison staff and the influx of new recruits hired to service the booming numbers of prisoners. Known pejoratively as 'dinosaurs', some guards have decades of experience, working in prisons such as Pentridge where cultures of violence and hierarchies of power were long-established and accepted.
'You can forget everything you've learned in training' is the common refrain to new staff, according to accounts related to The Courier. At the same time, fresh employees who show initiative, confidence or intelligence are singled out for bullying, to reinforce exactly who is in charge. Applying for training courses to rise through the officer system is regarded as an affront.
Another is the 'local rule', where officers transferred from outside the Ararat region and recruits not from the area are regarded with mistrust. The nature of prison work means long hours, and many people form relationships within the system. Some once lived in accommodation provided within the prison walls, or are second or third-generation guards.
While not of itself a problem, it has led to an 'us-and-them' mindset, The Courier understands. 'The Boys' Club' extends to both men and women, having to do more with minding each other's backs and ensuring nothing gets out that can reflect badly on work practices.
It's telling that WorkSafe has put the Department of Justice on notice over its misconduct inquiries, which are used as retributive weapons, according to our sources. What is required is an open, wide-ranging inquiry into the management of these facilities, from the top down.
Revelations of an exponentially rising prison population in Victoria can only add to the pressures on Corrections Victoria staff, many of whom have resigned over what they say is a toxic culture of bullying, sexual harassment and nepotism in an least two local regional prisons.
Fairfax Media has reported imprisonment rates in Victoria have returned to levels last seen in the 1890s, with many more offenders being kept in prisons following reforms to bail laws after the murder of Jill Meagher, the Bourke Street massacre in 2017 and the failed terror attack in Bourke Street last year.
The figures come in the wake of The Courier's exclusive stories from former and current prison staff about their treatment at Langi Kal Kal and Hopkins facilities west of Ballarat.
People on remand now account for 38 per cent of all prisoners in the system, up from 19 per cent five years ago, the report says. There are currently 8110 prisoners in our jails; this is slated to increase to 11,130 by 2023.
Government drives to recruit much-needed new staff have been in place for some time, but existing and former officers have questioned whether all those applying for positions are actually suited for the high-stress roles of guarding, transporting and managing prisoners.
While the government and Corrections Victoria would not comment on the likelihood of more prisons being constructed, it's known new male and female jails are on the drawing board. A prison officer who spoke to The Courier said some staff in his intake in 2013 were clearly not mentally or physically suited to the rigours of prison work, but were pushed through into the job anyway.
"They were pushed through with the extreme, bare minimums," said the officer, who resigned in May this year.
"If they looked like they were passing it, then it was, 'They'll be right'."
The Courier has been pursuing the issue of bullying and harassment at Langi Kal Kal and Hopkins prisons, as past and present staff come forward with their stories.
The narratives are distressing, and the numbers of staff who've resigned from Grampians region prison services give weight to concerns that there is a deeper-seated problem than discontent and work pressures..
The staff who have spoken to The Courier have since been contacted by the Department of Justice, fuelling fears they may be pursued over their decisions to speak out and be identified.
To that end, The Courier approached the Department of Justice asking why the interviewees were contacted, and received the following statement.
'The Department of Justice and Community Safety takes any alleged staff misconduct very seriously.
We are keen to learn as much as we can from both current and former employees, to ensure we are providing a working environment that is safe and respectful to all staff.
To that end, the Secretary of the department has offered to meet with and hear the concerns of former staff members.
Any behaviour or harassment in the workplace is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.'
A previous statement addressed The Courier's first stories:
The Department of Justice and Community Safety is actively managing a number of historical - and more recent - staffing matters at Langi Kal Kal Prison and the Hopkins Correctional Centre.
The department is committed to providing a working environment that is safe and respectful to all staff, with all employees subject to the Victorian Public Sector Employee's Code of Conduct.
The department has made a number of operational changes with a focus on culture - strengthening both the leadership and diversity of the region, including appointing a female Regional Director and female General Manager at Langi Kal Kal within the past 18 months.
Both of these prisons have a number of safety and staff wellbeing initiatives in place, including mental health first aid officers, counselling support for prison officers and enhanced leadership training.
Any behaviour that is not conducive to a safe and respectful environment - including bullying and sexual harassment - is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.
The department expects all staff to uphold the highest levels of professionalism and comprehensive training is provided to ensure they are aware of expectations.
WorkSafe Victoria has now served an improvement notice on the Department of Justice over the manner of its handling of misconduct inquiries.
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 may 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 22 4636
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