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‘We have been patient’

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Corrections Officers take complaints about work conditions to the Cabinet grounds

By Jonathan Bell

Prison officers have won a concession from Government after marching in protest over what they call dangerous workplace conditions.

A security fence now being erected at Westgate is expected to better secure the prison perimeter, Commissioner of Corrections Edward Lamb said yesterday.

His announcement followed complaints from Prison Officers Association chairman Craig Clarke that weapons were being smuggled into the west end facility, with Department of Corrections staff under daily threat from a new breed of criminal.

“We have people walking right up to our perimeters and we have weapons getting into prison,” Mr Clarke told Premier Paula Cox and Justice Minister Kim Wilson. “With the type of inmates we have now, we can’t work in this climate.”

The comments came after 70 corrections staff gathered outside Cabinet and handed a statement of grievances to Senator Wilson and Ms Cox.

Sen Wilson pledged that Government would complete a review of prison service conditions by the end of May.

She said that many of the group’s concerns had already been recognised by Government and could be dealt with however “others are more long-term, and would have to be budgeted for in the upcoming year”.

Yesterday’s march came some seven months after Government agreed to an independent review of the prison service following concerns over persistent smuggling of weapons and drugs into the facility.

“We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Mr Clarke told the gathering.

Asked about the review promised in August by then-Justice Minister Michael Scott, Mr Clarke said problems with security, safety and health date back to a 2001 board of inquiry.

“We have asked, we have waited, we have been patient,” he said. “This is for the men and women who risk their lives up there, and who feel disrespected. We need some action.”

He added that the group had taken care to ensure that presence of corrections staff at a march had no effect on operations at the prison.

Asked what the main issue was, Mr Clarke said: “The infrastructure isn’t good, we’re working in an environment that is not sterile, and the perimeters are being breached on a daily basis.

He accused Government of “lacking the will to fix the problem”, adding: “They pump millions into the front end, but the back end is unseen. Who cares what happens in prison?”

Ms Cox later told

The Royal Gazette: “The Government is committed to the review, and will ensure that it is carried out ...

“The Government dialogue has always been with the understanding that the solution would derive from continued collaboration, communication and a consideration of relevant issues such as safety, security and also a sensitivity to the times we are living in.”

The POA has complained in recent weeks of increasingly brazen launches of packaged weapons and drugs into Westgate grounds, with Mr Clarke earlier this month likening the facility to a time bomb.

“We are experiencing a different breed of criminal,” the POA chairman said. “Some are good inmates who are responsive to the regime, but certain individuals really don’t care what you tell them.”

He said people imprisoned for decades over gun offences were often “aggressive until they accept”, and officers wanted more restrictions to protect them.

He said that many issues encapsulated in last August’s review agreement with Government were outstanding from the 2001 inquiry, which Government agreed upon after industrial action by the POA.

“It seems like we’re fighting the same issues over and over again. Since I have been chairman we’ve had three or four different ministers and four or five different permanent secretaries to deal with, and every time you think you’re getting ahead of the game, it changes.”

Mr Clarke said the POA had to fight for “decent escort vehicles, vests and decent radios” as well as a secure perimeter, but added: “The issue is really internal. It’s about how we operate. We spent an inordinate amount of money incarcerating people but we don’t look at a value for money.”

He described the Commissioner, Lt Col Lamb, as “a good man” but added: “Does he understand the corrections regimes? I don’t know that.”

Lt Col Lamb last night described the remark as “peculiar” and said he would address it in course.

“I recognise that there will always be issues and demands facing any organisation,” he said. “However, I remain fully and unequivocally committed to cultivating harmony and unity throughout the department, inclusive of the POA, with the aim of our working together to achieve our mission for this Country.”

He added: “As a matter of interest, security and safety have always been, and will continue to be, of paramount concern in a prison working environment. Consequently, we are constantly assessing risks with a view to alleviating them.

“In fact, we are right now in the midst of erecting new security fencing that will greatly improve security at Westgate, a process that is nearing completion. We are also in the process of acquiring items that will provide officers with more safety and security.”

Lt Col Lamb said “a high standard of diligence” by staff would also diminish the risks that officers confront.

“For example, we very recently conducted a hugely successful search of the entire facility at Westgate, utilising officers from all facilities along with senior management, and we shall continue such operations,” he said.

“I am confident that in the fullness of time, the issues with which we are grappling at the moment, including salaries, with unity of purpose and reason, will be resolved for the betterment and benefit of all concerned including the wider community.”

Prison Officers marched on Cabinet yesterday morning demanding government action on security and safety issues, which they say have not been addressed. Photo by Akil Simmons
Chairman of the Prison Officers Association, Craig Clark address the Premier Paula Cox and Minister Kim Wilson demanding they take action on security and safety issues, which he says have not been addressed. (Photo by Akil Simmons) March 27, 2012

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Published March 28, 2012 at 9:00 am (Updated March 28, 2012 at 9:50 am)

‘We have been patient’

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