MAXINE McKEW: Victoria has experienced something of a correctional services revolution in the past decade, with around half of its convicted offenders now in privately-run prisons -- a figure that outstrips any other jurisdiction in the world.
Tonight, at least some of those prisoners are back in State hands, with the Victorian Government's move today to resume operation of the maximum security Deer Park women's prison.
This followed what the Government says were breaches of contract by the private operator.
Corrections Corporation Australia, on the other hand, says it's being penalised by a government fundamentally opposed to privatisation and is reviewing its legal options.
But as Geoff Hutchison reports, today's developments don't necessarily signal the rolling back of Victoria's private prison system.
ANDRE HAERMEYER, VICTORIAN CORRECTIONS MINISTER: The Government has this morning taken control of the maximum-security women's correctional centre at Deer Park.
PENNY ARMYTAGE, CORRECTIONAL SERVICES COMMISSIONER: The lockdown will be maintained at the prison until such time as we're comfortable that all prisoners have been advised as to what has happened and I have circulated a letter from myself to every prisoner at the prison, advising them of the action that has been taken.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: Tonight, the 161 women prisoners at Melbourne's maximum-security Metropolitan Correctional Centre are locked in their cells under the authority of a new prison administrator and Government-supplied prison staff.
The State Government stepped in today, following a report from the Correctional Services Commissioner which found the prison's operator, Corrections Corporation of Australia, was failing fundamental security and drug prevention obligations.
PENNY ARMYTAGE: There has been serious deficits within the management of at-risk prisoners, self-harming prisoners and the responses that they have received to their particularly acute needs.
There have been repeated examples where, through staff shortages, the prison has been locked down at various points and prison regimes have not been able to be maintained.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: It has been a miserable year at Deer Park.
Since May, the State Government has issued three default notices highlighting security lapses, assaults, fires and a widespread drug abuse problem.
Add to that the fact the prison was locked down 75 times and half of those lockdowns were the result of staff shortages.
JULIAN KENNELLY, COMMUNITY AND PUBLIC SERVICES UNION: The lack of staff, the overcrowding, the incarceration of too many women in the facility.
That, combined with a lack of staff, meant that programs were eliminated, with the company trying to still maximise its return from its investment.
RICHARD BOURKE, CRIMINAL BAR ASSOCIATION: Deer Park prison has given rise to a litany of complaints about reductions in education services, reduction in health services, overcrowding, violence, inappropriate management strategies in managing protection prisoners, low-security prisoners, high-security prisoners, drug issues and a massive concern about reduced staff training and staffing levels.
You remember that this is the prison that within the first six months had an incident in which untrained and inexperienced staff tied up one of the inmates with a trouser belt and hog-tied her to her own handcuffs.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: Corrections Corporation of Australia was clearly taken by surprise by today's action.
In a statement, managing director Terry Lawson questioned the State Government's motives:
TERRY LAWSON, MANAGING DIRECTOR OF CORRECTIONS CORPORATION OF AUSTRALIA (STATEMENT): "CCA has been the victim of a concerned campaign by the Victorian Minister for Corrections, who has gone on record as saying that he does not believe in private prisons."
ANDRE HAERMEYER: The report revealed fundamental security failures which present a clear risk to the safety of the community, to the safety of prisoners in the prison and to the safety of staff in the prison.
TERRY LAWSON (STATEMENT): "Management at Deer Park has made a concreted effort to comply with requests from the Commissioner's Office to undertake changes in prison procedures. There is no emergency and the prison is operating efficiently and peacefully."
PENNY ARMYTAGE: And, for example, only last week there was no general practitioner available on site for three days to meet the needs of the women prisoners.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: So was today's decision driven by ideology?
Does it represent the first step in a longer-term plan to end the privatisation of the prison system in Victoria?
In short, the answer is no.
The State Government has been handcuffed by contracts it can't afford to break and Andre Haermeyer was making it clear there isn't a wider agenda.
ANDRE HAERMEYER: I need to emphasise that we do not have a problem with the operation of the other two private prisons.
The advice I have at the moment is that those prisons The advice I have at the moment is that those prisons are satisfactorily meeting their contractual obligations.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: Now, the State Government has begun talks with the prison operator to negotiate the termination of the contract and the Minister would not speculate just how much it might cost to free itself from some private clutches.
When do you think we'll know just how much it will cost for the Government to assume responsibility for this prison?
ANDRE HAERMEYER: Well, look, as I say, these are matters that are still, you know, once we have some idea in terms of how quickly we expect these negotiations to come to a satisfactory end, we will then also have a fair idea of what the cost factors involve.
Is it the ballpark of tens of millions of dollars?
ANDRE HAERMEYER: Oh, look, I wouldn't want to speculate.
MAXINE McKEW: Well, that's clear.
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