In May 2006, the Department of Corrective Services (DCS) unexpectedly withdrew traditional all-day visits for family and friends visiting the women of Emu Plains Correctional Centre. This policy change has had the greatest affect on children who, by virtue of having an incarcerated parent, are already at significantly higher risk than children of non-incarcerated parents of mental health problems, behavioural and emotional problems, delinquency, and their own eventual incarceration.
In the Budget Estimates hearing on 28 August 2006, Corrective Services was asked detailed questions on the issue, and misled Parliament with their responses. DCS falsely claimed that prisoners and their families asked for and supported the changes as being in the best interests of their children. In fact, the opposite is true, and the department attempted to intimidate the mothers out of exposing their lies. On 7 September, in an adjournment speech to Parliament, Mr. Peter Breen MP discussed the increasing number of prisoners in NSW jails, and the staff shortages that have led to the removal of all day visits. In the third year of the campaign to return Emu Plains’ all-day visits, such inconsistency and obfuscation still plagues the debate.
The decision to lessen family contact, including that between children and their mothers, is a destructive one for the women, their families, and the community as a whole. NSW already suffers the highest recidivism rates (45%) in all of Australia, and the Auditor General has recently condemned the state’s Corrective Services policies. The new restrictions on visits are already straining family and community ties, and will only make it more difficult for female offenders (and their children) to escape the cycle of crime and imprisonment.
Emu plains Correctional centre is a low security prison near Sydney, NSW, exclusively reserved to women since 1966. All women must be C2 Qualification (low risk) in order to be accepted and benefit from the Mothers & Children program in the Jacaranda Cottages. Until 2006, the centre had always permitted all-day visits, steering women to try to be classified as law risk to move there and spend more time with their children, family and friends. The vast majority of inmates are mothers and therefore heavily relies on visits to maintain bonds with their children. Moreover during all-day visits the Rotary club consistently sponsored a Barbecue lunch for inmates and their visitors, with the money raised going to wards local community projects. This system seemed to work effectively for everyone; with visitors – often living far away from Emu Plains prison – confident to enjoy an unburdened and convivial moment with their loved ones.
Policy change & consequences
The new General Manager of EMU, arrived late 2005, informed of changes from all-day visits to split-visits by adding one-hour break between 11:30am to 12:30pm. The reason given was to allow visitors, especially children, to have a suitable lunch. This ignores that visitors and prisoners previously had lunch together as well as the fact that visitors without any means of transport, in the middle of Western Sydney, at mid-day are actually prevented from having lunch, as there are no facilities within reasonable walking distance from the prison. Visits are automatically terminated if family/friends need to use the toilets, and it is often the case that visitor choose to leave the prison earlier, at lunch. The change was implemented in May 2006 without consulting any neither prisoners nor visitors.
The inmate Development Committee representing the women was told those changes were implemented as a trial to bring Emu Plains centre into line with other prisons and that no further discussion will be entered about it.
On the weekend of 29/30 July, visitors were informed they would now have to pre-book any visit which are now limited to two hours. Booked visits are the normal procedure for maximum-security prisons; there is therefore no logic in subjecting the low-risk inmates of Emu plains or their family to the same policies.
This new booking system is presented as a more orderly process reducing check-in time and inconvenience for all parties, which sounds reasonable. Nevertheless Justice Action’s investigation exposes the exact opposite has been accomplished:
- Visitors can only stay for a two-hour period (until lunch break) and long queues cut into their valuable time.
- Visitors only have three three-hour windows per week (Tuesday through Thursday) to schedule their visits, which is highly inconvenient for those working during the week or having prior commitments to fulfill.
- Mandatory bookings cause some visit to not happen at all, either because timeslots have been filled up or booking are not properly managed. There is consequently a risk family member be turned away upon arrival.
- Even when family members are able to make time to phone, there have been reports of phone not being answered. Claims, have been made that this is due to employees feeling this should not be part of their job description, subsequently not answering the phone.
In addition to changes of visitation policies, inmates have seen the allowed phone contact amount reduced from 15mns with a 5mns to 6mns with a 30mns ban between calls. This, by no measure, provides sufficient time for the women in prison to engage in meaningful contacts needed to develop and maintain strong ties with families and friends.
Another issue of significant weight at Emu Plains is the proposed initiative by Parliament to bring in all day visits during the week for children instead of on the weekend. This proposal raises grave concerns: many adults who provide rides for inmates’ children to the prison have to work during the week, whilst others may not have access to transportation to get out to visit if the family car is not available. Most school-aged children are brought in by an extended family member on the weekends to visit their parents. In practice, this day pass means that a child will have to miss class to be dropped off in the morning, while the carer has to leave for four hours in this outer metro region only to return to pick up the child. The scheme fails to take into consideration that no mother should be made to choose between bonding with her child and placing undue burden on her other loved ones, nor should any mother and child miss out on visitation time because of such avoidable obstacles.
Dr. Louise Newman, Director of the NSW Institute of Psychiatry, has expressed concerns to Minister Tony Kelly regarding those recent changes to visiting arrangements at Emu Plains. She highlighted the many benefits of all-day visits for both inmates and visitors, and emphasized that restrictions on mother and child contacts fail to benefit a mother’s mental and emotional health as well as a child’s development in general.
Although the Department of Correctional Services’ own research demonstrates that strong support network and family ties are amongst the most important factors helping to reduce recidivism and keep women from returning to prison, these spiteful actions are more than detrimental to the fostering of familial relationships for which the facility was once renowned.
Parliament's erroneous justifications
During the Estimates Committee hearing on 28 August 2006, Justice Minister Tony Kelly was asked questions about the Emu Plains’ visit restrictions. Assistant Deputy Commissioners Ian McLean and Luke Grant said, while under oath, that “by splitting the full day visits into two three-hours visits, children visiting inmates will be able to spend more time having a proper lunch”, apparently their main concern. They pursued in stating that “this was discussed with the Inmate Development Committee on at least two occasions before the implementation of the split visits on May 2006” and that “no objections were raised by neither the Committee nor inmates”. It was conclusively affirmed that the ‘demonstrated’ consensus on the issue reflected the utility and efficiency of the newly implemented visits system. Mr. McLean essentially claimed that the inmates had requested the changes regarding replacing day visits with the new scheme and were furthermore involved in the decision and implementation process. In reality, prisoners at Emu Plains were merely informed of the changes by the Inmate Development Committee (IDC).
In a meeting held on 25 October 2006, one of the major reasons given for the change in policy was the increase in contraband found at Emu Plains. Clearly there are inconsistencies in the DSC’s position that must be addressed.Parliamentary Committee concerns 17 November 2014 can be found here.
Not only these claims were not in any way supported by relevant evidence, but their blatant untruth is also well documented. Women at Emu Plains, as well as their visitors, have vividly complained. However the prison’s management, in their efforts to silence dissent, have in turn ignored reported concerns and have responded to them with tactics of intimidation.
Intimidation & Voluntary Campaign Obstruction
Since the implementation of the split-visits in May 2006, many visitors have written to the General Manager complaining of the negative effects both on the visitors and the women in prison. Some visitors and prisoners have also complained orally to officers at the prison. The written complaints have gone unanswered, and the oral complaints have reportedly been met with responses such as ‘Keep complaining and it will only get worse’. Families and prisoners at Emu Plains want to voice their opposition to the changes, but they have been bullied into silence.
Concerned inmates and their families eventually came to Justice Action for assistance. Justice Action gathered facts and opinions, and attempted to confirm negative claims. An information leaflet was prepared for feedback to the Minister and for presentation to Parliament.
On 5 August, a member of Justice Action visited a prisoner at Emu Plains. He spoke with other visitors and gave them copies of the leaflet. Five days later, he was informed that that he would be banned from the prison for two years for ‘fomenting disharmony and conflict’, ‘causing dissension’ and ‘confrontation’, ’inciting visitors by the misleading, inaccurate and uninformed handouts’, and ignoring the fact that he had ’been warned on numerous occasions’. When he attempted to know when the supposed previous warnings had occurred, and how exactly his document was inaccurate, he was told that a ‘semantic discussion’ would not be entered into.
On 25 August, Justice Action sent a letter to each of the 177 Emu Plains prisoners, addressed by name and sent by registered post, suggesting that they and their visitors make their views known to the Minister, either directly or anonymously through Justice Action.
In response to these letters, women inside supplied the following report:
‘During the week, all the girls in the compound were asked to go to Visits as the General Manager had an announcement. She walked out with a big garbage bag of letters and said “These letters are from JA, as you can see, I have not opened them. There is a letter addressed to each of you. This has disturbed me quite a bit as I have come from meetings with the Ombudsman and Official Visitors of this jail, enquiring as to who has complained and why. After going through every phone call made to the Ombudsman, I was quite content that these complaints about visits were coming more from the outside and not you girls. I would be very disappointed if any of you were to complain!”’
Women at Emu Plains have been forced to break the law to ensure that the outside community and decision makers know their position. They have smuggled out letters, as they knew that their complaints risked negatively affecting their personal situations inside.
To impede the campaign from getting further, the Department of Corrective Services kicked Justice Action’s Community Services Branch, Breakout, Out of the Community Service Orders (CSO) Scheme:
On 20 November 2006, it was revealed that the DSC affirmed they would no longer be allowing ex-prisoners to do their community service with Breakout, an affiliate community organization to Justice Action. Breakout was launched in 1984 as an employment program for those recently released from prison, and has been hailed in the community as one of the leading CSO agencies that has a strong mentoring program. The DSC asserted that Breakout is “no longer an approved CSO worksite”, but failed to give any reasons for their disapproval and have refused to answer Breakout’s queries regarding the cancellation. It is interesting to note that the letter stating that approval was lost was written by the same person from the DSC who is currently dealing with the Emu Plains visiting issue. Coincidence? Over 25 years of community service and prisoner support has regrettably been halted, and Justice Action is being penalised for having a voice in standing up for the women at Emu Plains and prisoners at large. Transparent mechanisms must be implemented to ensure that justice is met.
DCS has however recently made some important concessions. They admitted the removal of the all-day visits had actually been imposed on prisoners and visitors, rather than implemented at their suggestion and with their approval, as was originally claimed before the Estimates Committee. Many prisoners were in fact totally against the loss of their all-day visits, but had been intimidated out of protesting. It is for this reason that these vulnerable women and their families have appealed for outside support.
DCS has also conceded that visits are "very, very important" to the maintenance of family relationships, and that the strength of these relationships is a factor in the reduction of recidivism. It is to be hoped that this knowledge leads to the reinstatement of former visitation policies.
DCS admitted that their attempt to involve visitors in a pre-policy change survey was a complete failure. Over 1,075 surveyed visitors, only one respondent over sixteen was prepared to participate in a Visits Committee for further discussion on the issue. It is of course unreasonable to expect that a high number of visitors would have the time or the resources to participate in such a committee, especially without any strong evidence that their opinions would really be heard and valued. Following the intimidation by DCS officials, numerous individuals have advised Justice Action that their complaints only seem to be met with further restrictions, so they stay silent. For these reasons and others, it must be assumed that factors beyond simple disinterest contributed to the dismal failure of the survey.
DCS nevertheless still intends to reduce visits to a level that is currently considered standard within maximum-security facilities: two-hour booked visits. Implementation is planned for early December, and has only been delayed thus far due to staffing issues.
To further complicate the situation, DCS has informed Parliament of a new initiative to introduce all-day visits on a weekday instead of the weekend. DCS admitted that they had not considered the implications for school-aged children, who would have class during the week. They also failed to address the question of those children’s transport, as family or caregivers would usually work on weekdays. Failing to keep records of weekend visitations, DCS cannot predict what effect these changes would have on the (currently) up to 180 visits a day. To present this initiative to Parliament as a fresh response to visitation problems is simply another example of dishonesty. In fact, the opportunity for all-day weekday visits has existed for some time, but is generally unpopular for the reasons listed above. In practice, it is unworkable for most families. It means that the child is dropped off in the morning and that the caregiver must wait for four hour in this outer-metro region, sometimes without private transportation, sometimes far away from their own homes, before returning to pick up the child.
History of correspondence, discussions and requests
Sample Prisoners’ testimony
One of the numerous letters received by Justice Action says:
‘To Justice Action,
Firstly, I would like to thank-you for the concern you have shown and the support we inmates are receiving from your organization.
I have been an inmate here for nearly 8 years and have previously been in the system before. EPCC was a very sympathetic and understanding institution where inmates were permitted to have family contact in a pleasant and casual environment. Visits were open all day on the weekends and there were no stipulations on the time factor.
When my family came, we had no concern of our visit finishing; we were comfortable knowing that we had plenty of time to relax and enjoy each others company.
We were able to purchase lunch and have a meal together as a family. This created such normality and my [visitor] was happy that she could buy me something, even if it was just a steak sandwich or sausage sandwich.
Spending time with my children, playing in the playground gave me strength for another week and calmed them considerably as they saw that I was coping and surviving behind bars.
Having broken visits has created a lot of unnecessary anger and upset. After visiting me for an hour in the morning session, my kids become very upset that they have to leave so quickly. Then they have to go through the lengthy process of re-entering again and wasting another hour waiting in line to enter again.
I have been listening to the complaints of other inmates where old parents catch public transport. It takes them ages to arrive at EPCC and then they end up waiting due to the congestion at reception. Before they know it the session is over so they have to walk to the main road, sit and wait until the afternoon session begins. They do not have transport to drive to a take-away and buy some lunch, so they go without. Then again the whole process of re-registering and waiting up to one and a half hours to enter.
Why change a system that has been successful for many years? Why the need to introduce a system that goes against all human reasoning? Why put our families through more stress and unhappiness, when visits should be a happy, pleasant, stress-free time?
Haven’t our families suffered enough? They end up doing our jail with us. Every time they walk out those doors and leave us behind they suffer quietly. Why does the system need to inflict more pain on them and minimise our visiting time with our family and friends?
Please help us to re-introduce our full day visits with an opportunity to have lunch with our loved ones.
Sample Community/Politicians’ Responses
NSW Legislative Council Hansard, 7 September 2006, PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES PRISON POPULATION.
The Hon. PETER BREEN [5.19 p.m.]: ‘I take this opportunity to bring to the attention of the House the difficulties faced by prisoners in New South Wales as a result of staff shortages and inadequate funding. New South Wales has an incarceration rate per head of population double that of Victoria because we lack the imagination to devise diversionary programs and the political will to help our prisoners recover their lives. The prison population has been increasing at around 400 prisoners annually, which means that we need to build one gaol each year just to keep pace with the increase. Needless to say, we cannot afford capital works on such a scale so we make cuts elsewhere in order to cope with the expanding prison population. Inevitably, it is the prisoners who bear the brunt of cuts, with more lockdowns, fewer education and training programs, and tighter restrictions on out-of-cell activities.
Last month I received a letter from a prisoner at Lithgow Correctional Complex who informed me that he had been in lockdown for more than 100 days in the past three years. Under the sensible and compassionate arrangements that exist in Victoria, for example, this modern form of solitary confinement would entitle the prisoner to one year's remission on his sentence. In New South Wales, however, remissions for government-inflicted cruelty are a thing of the past. It is hardly surprising that we are failing to rehabilitate our prisoners and that more than half of them re-offend and return to prison within five years. The cost to the community, particularly to the victims of crime, of our lack of care towards prisoners is a matter of great concern. As well as the obvious accommodation cost for prisoners, which is now running at around $200,0000 per year for some prisoners, the cost of re-offending is incalculable for the victims of crime.
Last year the Department of Corrective Services introduced a further cost-cutting measure by splitting all-day visits into morning and afternoon visits. The change is designed to suit the convenience of staff rosters and allows prison management between one and two hours in the middle of the day to make up for staff shortages. One direct consequence of this new roster arrangement has been an increase in lockdowns. Another consequence is more hurdles and hoops for families and friends of visitors. At Emu Plains prison, for example, the reason given for the policy change to provide an extra hour in the middle of the day for staff shortages was "to allow visitors to have lunch". Of course, this statement is arrant nonsense, since prior to the change prisoners had lunch with their visitors. Now the visitors are put out of the prison at lunchtime, and prisoners and visitors have separate arrangements for lunch.
The department labelled the changes at Emu Plains a trial but, like the so-called trial for visitors terminating their visits in order to go to the toilet, the new arrangement for visitors to lunch outside the prison is better described as a tribulation than a trial. I have never seen the results of any Corrective Services trial, but that is another story. The bottom line is that the department has withdrawn traditional all-day visits for families and friends of the women inmates at Emu Plains. Often the visitors are the women's children and they simply go home during the lunch break, thus denying mothers important contact with their families.
Officers of the department were asked questions about the visiting arrangements at Emu Plains during a budget estimates hearing on 28 August. A casual reader of the transcript of these proceedings might think the officers misled Parliament when they said the prisoners and their families asked for and supported the changes to visiting arrangements at Emu Plains. The officers also said the new arrangements were in the best interests of the children. The local Rotary club traditionally put on a barbeque lunch for the 177 women inmates and their family visitors, so it is difficult to know how the children would benefit from terminating such an arrangement. A number of members of this House have complained to the Minister for Justice about the new visiting arrangements at Emu Plains prison. In a letter, the President of the Legislative Council, the Hon. Meredith Burgmann, said:
‘We fought for many years for this type of facility [for women inmates], it would be a sad situation if the children stop visiting regularly and their families suffered as a direct result of these changes.’
Members in the other place who have voiced their concerns include Clover Moore, Paul Lynch, Linda Burney, Noreen Hay and the Minister for Women, Sandra Nori. Justice Action wrote to the Minister on 30 August suggesting the establishment of a community panel to oversee the reinstatement of full-day visits at Emu Plains. This community panel could give inmates an opportunity to have some input into the arrangements. I urge the Minister to respond to the community action that is mounting in response to the situation at Emu Plains and to support the women inmates by taking appropriate action to restore all-day visits.’
This is what some other members of parliament have had to say about the changes:
Clover Moore MP: ‘85% of women prisoners are mothers, and the majority have primary responsibility for raising children before incarceration’; The strength of the mother-child bond is the most significant indicator of recidivism for females with children.’
Paul Lynch MP: '[This change] is allegedly on the basis that the visitors need to be allowed to have lunch. Such a rationale is of course preposterous.'
Some other individual and organizations who have written to the Minister are: Sandra Nori Minister for Women, Linda Burney MP, Noreen Hay MP, YWCA Canberra, Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, Women’s Legal Centre (ACT), Dr Deb Foskey MLA.
Request to Minister
August 2006, Justice action asked the Minister to immediately reinstate all-day visits and to set up a community panel for further discussion of the issue:
‘In light of those comments to Parliament we propose a community panel comprising a politician, a member of the Commissioner's Women Advisory Committee (WAC), a representative of Justice Action and yourself meet with the members of the Inmate Development Committee (IDC) to clarify the position of prisoners at Emu Plains and to ensure Parliament has not been misled. It is important that prisoners are allowed the opportunity to clarify their position as your officers claim these changes to visits have occurred because the women at Emu Plains want them.
Prisoners and their families have expressed grave concerns that they will be punished by removal of their C classification and access to their children if they object to this attack on their existing conditions. The meeting with the IDC should be sensitive to this concern.
The community panel could also work with the women prisoners, their families and staff to ensure the visiting system is the best possible. This would bring benefit to the wider community, through less women coming back to jail due to the improved family and community relationships that are established.’
It is time to accept that DCS is causing crime by its horrendous mismanagement, open dishonesty and lack of goodwill to the concerned community.
We will work with other organisations and supportive politicians to highlight this issue in the lead up and during the upcoming election campaign, to demonstrate that this government has lost control of the Department of Corrective Services. We will demand from government a reversal of the decision to ban all-day visits and strategies to lower the recidivist rate by providing services to support prisoners upon their release and their families.