Dickensian conditions in NT prisons_The Australian

Posted on November 14, 2011


This article was recently published in the Australian about prisons in the NT.


November 08, 20113:22

ROBERT Wallis doesn’t look like the sort of bloke who would get scared easily, but when he entered Darwin’s Berrimah Prison for the first time, he admits he was frightened.

What he saw in 2007, when he was 33, was people crammed into small cells, rats running around and food that was shocking and sometimes rotten.

“We would use something like a T-shirt or a towel to push in the gap under the door to stop rats and mosquitoes coming in,” he explains.

In the stifling heat and humidity of the build-up to the wet season, prisoners in Darwin often have no ceiling fans or air conditioning, leading to frayed tempers and fights.

Perhaps even more alarming than the situation described at Berrimah is that the worst conditions at the prison are saved for those in remand, people who are presumed innocent and are sometimes acquitted at trial.

Wallis was ultimately found guilty of assault, and sentenced to 28 days in Berrimah – but by the time he was sentenced he had already served six months in remand at the prison.

Remand conditions at Berrimah and further south at the Alice Springs prison have been getting attention lately, with Northern Territory Supreme Court Justice Dean Mildren saying conditions do not comply with Australia’s international obligations.

Justice Mildren has been reducing sentences for prisoners who have been locked up in remand to reflect the undue harshness of the conditions while awaiting sentence.

He has said conditions at both Alice Springs and Darwin breach the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and rules on the minimum treatment of prisoners.

According to those rules untried prisoners should be kept separate from those already convicted and must be allowed to sleep singly in separate rooms.

Australia’s prisons sign on to national guidelines, which while not as stringent, still require remand prisoners to be treated at least as well as sentenced prisoners and says they should not be put in contact with convicted prisoners against their will “where practicable”.

There is little doubt conditions in Northern Territory remand cells are worse than for those already convicted.

While in remand prisoners are locked down for 16 to 18 hours each day, don’t have the access to educational programs that mainstream prisoners get and do the most menial jobs.

Conditions are crowded and far from having access to a single cell, prisoners are often housed in dormitories with many others.

In both Alice Springs and Darwin remand prisoners mix with convicted criminals.

Jon Tippet who has worked as a criminal barrister for 35 years says a strong element of racism allows people to turn a blind eye to conditions in Northern Territory’s jails.

About 82 per cent of all prisoners in the Northern Territory are indigenous people, and many think they will put up with anything, Mr Tippet says.

“They are not wanting restaurant-style food, but they get fruit that is rotten and other food is inedible,” he explains.

“It is like something out of Dickens, in fact is it worse than Dickens.”

He says prisoners are given a bucket of water to keep cool with, and violence is common, but people don’t often voice complaints.

“The conditions are rat-infested, overcrowded and impossible to properly detain people,” he says.

Mr Tippet has had clients who were locked up for more than a year in remand awaiting trial in Darwin, only to be found not guilty of any offence and let free.

He blames a game of political brinkmanship that has seen bail rules toughened in recent years leading to overcrowding, and conditions in prison worsen.

Occasionally complaints from prisoners do get publicly aired.

In her annual report for 2010-11, NT Ombudsman Carolyn Richards revealed that a prisoner was “unhappy with being bitten on the scrotum by a rat”.

The ombudsman said there were complaints of a rat plague in the jail at Darwin and a mouse plague in the one at Alice Springs.

Other prisoners were unhappy with the lack of heating at Alice Springs Prison or the lack of air-conditioning at the Darwin facility.

Ms Richards said none of the complaints raised by prisoners were serious enough to warrant investigation by her office.

Perhaps surprisingly, some of the strongest criticisms of Darwin’s Berrimah Prison come from the man who runs it – NT’s executive director of Correctional Services, Ken Middlebrook.

“I am dealing with a greater level of numbers than the institution can handle,” he told a coronial inquest in July.

Berrimah was built to hold just 110 prisoners, but now houses about 700.

“The staff and the prisoners are in conditions out there that quite frankly should have been closed years ago,” Mr Middlebrook said.

He said he agreed with Coroner Greg Cavanagh “absolutely” that conditions in remand were harder than for someone who had been sentenced.

The NT government is keen to show it has heard the criticisms of its system, and is planning a new $500 million prison for Darwin, expected to open in 2014.

Correctional Services Minister Gerry McCarthy says the new facility will include a better system for those in remand, although he won’t be drawn on whether remand prisoners are currently treated worse than others locked-up.

Mr McCarthy denies prisoners in Darwin have been served rotting food or that they sleep on floors.

“Everybody has a bed or a mattress,” Mr McCarthy told AAP, adding that many people request to be housed in dormitories with other family members.

Mr McCarthy says conditions that remandees or prisoners face are improving and the government is committed to a suite of measures to try and break the re-offending cycle.