Overland was recently contacted by the relative of an inmate at the Metropolitan Remand Centre in Ravenhall, Melbourne, which, along with all prisons and a number of mental health service centres in Victoria, was recently subject to the enforcement of a state-wide smoking ban.
Approximately 84 per cent of the prison population in Victoria smoke. The Corrections Department claims that they have been working with Quit Victoria to get the prison population ready for the imposition of the ban. Nevertheless, the ban resulted in a riot inside the Remand Centre on 1 July. The following is a personal account from the partner of a prisoner inside the Remand Centre.
Not many people care about people inside. These people are on remand, as you know. Waiting to go to court or waiting for their sentencing.
I have known my partner since we were kids, around 25 years. He is a good man and not violent in any way. He is a smoker but does not care if he quits as it was something we both planned to do anyway for our health. But honestly, what horrid conditions to quit in.
Leading up to the smoking bans I was told that patches were offered to prisoners only once, and they were only offered one box. Those who requested more were told that they didn’t have any more to give them. I also read in the media that the prison had lavish meals planned for the quit date. My partner works daily in the kitchen at the Centre and had no knowledge of this. He actually laughed when I mentioned it.
The day of the riot there was a ‘ten minutes to count’ announcement. That means that in ten minutes a head count would take place. This happens several times per day to ensure all prisoners are accounted for. The yards went crazy at that point – I was told this by a woman whose husband is also inside that the prison guards locked the unit doors so the prisoners who were outside were unable to return to their units, even if they wanted to. Some of the prisoners who were inside were thrown into cells – any cell, it did not matter – and single cells now were holding five to six men in them.
No mattress or bedding was provided for days after the riot. There were windows broken everywhere so it was very cold. Most prisoners inside lost their property as it was destroyed or burned by rioting men. My partner does not know if his property was destroyed or not as he has not been allowed back to his cell. He is currently ‘locked down’ in a room designed for two men with up to six other men in it. They are locked in for 23.5 hours out of 24 like this! Conditions have been like this for the last eight days. For everybody! Not just those who were involved in the riot.
B yard, which was Burnside Unit, was completely destroyed but the rest of the prison was also damaged considerably. The visitors centre has been destroyed. I have been told that by other women with whom I have been in contact since the riot via a chat group designed for people with loved ones in the MRC. Since the riots I have found support with others who have family members inside the Remand Centre. We have found one another online in comments on news stories and have been comparing stories and conditions since the riot.
I heard from my partner today (8 July) for the first time since the day before the riot. Generally prisoners are allowed $30 per month. This goes nowhere if you live in another state. They are letting prisoners out in small groups daily for a short time as of yesterday to make calls. They are given approximately half an hour.
My partner told me today that most of the prisoners are now crammed into one part of the prison. This was also confirmed by the other family members I have spoken to, who have spoken to loved ones finally in the last two days. Many people have not heard from their loved ones as yet. Many prisoners have not showered for a week, have had their clothing taken from them and issued prison greens, locked in for 23.5 out of 24 into small cells designed for one and for two. They are locked in like animals in cramped conditions, food and juice scarce, edding non-existent for days. Prisoners who were on medication for mental health and other reasons were denied medication (which really concerns me) for approximately four days. Almost every security camera was destroyed. I was told by other people who have loved ones inside that every prisoner’s ID card and file was burned. And a really troubling piece of information – that prison staff were knocking on cell windows so the prisoners would look only to see the prison guards illegally smoking in the yard! The cameras are smashed so they can do what they like!
My partner confirmed all this on the phone today. Other men inside have told a similar story to their partners and families. I was astonished. This is unacceptable, cruel and likely to incite more violence, I feel.
Also during the riot when staff dismissed their duty of care, some prisoners were locked in cells, which made them vulnerable to smoke inhalation from the fires. When the staff evacuated, the rioting prisoners took other prisoners randomly out of their cells and violently beat them. Some were looking for tobacco stashes.
I have emailed Corrections Victoria since the riot and phoned the prison several times. The prison had assured me that my partner was given writing equipment and stationery so he could contact his family as phone calls were few and far between. When speaking to my partner today, he said he does not know when he will be able to write to me as he had been given a blunt pencil and no envelopes or stamps.
The prisons have many problems that needed to take priority over this not well thought out piece of legislation. Prisoners wait for months for court dates, and now they are being denied legal access and are unable to attend court, in person or via video link.
I live in NSW near the Queensland border and I was homeless for 5 weeks after my partner was locked up in Melbourne. Him being there has changed my whole life. I relied on him to contribute to our bill payments and our life. We have five kids between us. Now I live in a shoe box flat and my youngest son lives in the garage. We have no connections in Victoria; I am just now making friends there through this support group. Because we are from another state my partner will not be able to come home. They will not bail him to NSW. His court hearing could take eighteen months or more.
I think these men need people to know what’s going on in there. I have only seen my partner twice since February. I am very concerned about his mental and emotional health. This is a really shocking, badly managed situation. People need to know.
If you have any further information about this story, please contact us: Overland@vu.edu.au
Image: Michael Ocampo / flickr