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Overcrowding in prisons the backdrop to riots: Jesuit Social Services

Severe overcrowding in Victoria’s prisons has created the kind of pressure cooker conditions in which riots are more likely, and should be considered as a contributing factor in any investigation of the Ravenhall riot, according to Jesuit Social Services.

“We know from a series of reports and our own experience working with people in prisons that overcrowding has led to a near doubling of serious incidents such as assaults, attempted suicides and self-mutilation over the past six years, and has resulted in reduced access to health services and programs,” says Jesuit Social Services CEO Julie Edwards.

“Overcrowding means that there is more pressure on scarce shared facilities, such as open space, canteens, phones, libraries or gyms – all of which increases tensions and conflict.

“In this context of overcrowding Victoria has become the state with the most violent prisons in Australia – with a prison officer assaulted every three days and fights between inmates a daily occurrence.”

The Metropolitan Remand Centre at Ravenhall was built in 2006 with 600 beds and expanded in 2014 to house 1,000 prisoners – and as of January 2015 was at capacity with 1,005 prisoners. The 2015 Productivity Commission’s Report into Government Services noted that utilisation of high security beds was running at 100 per cent for three high security units in the prison system, including the Exford Unit at the Metropolitan Remand Centre – and that this lack of flexibility is known to impact adversely on prison assault rates.

“While it would seem that the smoking ban was the immediately visible trigger for last week’s riots, the situation was already a powder keg that will continue to be a serious problem for the Government. To prevent a repeat of these disturbances strong Government action is necessary to tackle overcrowding in prisons. Developing more alternatives to imprisonment to reduce the number of sentenced offenders in prison for non-violent crimes – currently 51 per cent – is a clear place to start,” says Ms Edwards.

Reform should also include:

Reinstatement of judicial discretion to impose suspended sentences

Strengthening alternatives to prison including diversion and community corrections orders to ensure people have access to supports like housing and drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and have supported pathways to education and employment.

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