Monday, May 14, 2012

Jails' new advocate

Heath Aston | Sun Herald | May 13, 2012

Prison officers will be able to air their grievances to an independent body without fear of retribution in one of the biggest shake-ups of the NSW jail system.

An inspector of prisons will be appointed in tandem with a new Corrective Services Commissioner, The Sun-Herald can reveal. The new position will be announced by the state government today, just weeks after it showed long-time Commissioner Ron Woodham the door.

The inspector of custodial services will work with Mr Woodham's replacement, but will only answer to Parliament and the Attorney-General, Greg Smith.

Representatives of the state's 3800 prison officers welcomed the creation of the inspectorate but warned the inspector must be allowed to ''implement reform, not just spruik it''.

Mr Smith said the inspector would be a champion for prisons and prisons officers. ''He or she will go into bat for anyone who feels the system can be improved, and anyone who provides information will be protected,'' he said.

''The new position will build public confidence in the justice system and ensure that correctional facilities are safe, secure and operate to a high standard. Prison officers will also be able to air their concerns without fear of being harassed or having their careers prejudiced as a result of assisting an inspector.''

Government sources said the creation of an independent inspector was a direct strike at the opaque structure of the present prison system under the leadership of Mr Woodham, the ''old school'' chief who rose from prison warden to commissioner to hold the top job for the past decade.

Mr Smith was frustrated at being stonewalled when seeking information last year over the death in Grafton jail of Ian Klum, a 52-year-old locked up for traffic offences. Surveillance footage showed prison officers looking on as Mr Klum crawled between cells before later dying of a brain haemorrhage.

Mr Woodham's replacement is expected to be in place by July 1.

The inspector will deal with all complaints from wardens and visitors while prisoners will still take their complaints to the ombudsman.

The position will be legislated in the Inspector of Custodial Services Bill 2012, to be introduced to Parliament shortly.

The inspector, who will be appointed to a five-year term - and can only be reappointed once - is likely to be drawn from the ranks of the judiciary. The independent statutory body led by the inspector will have jurisdiction over all correctional centres, including juvenile institutions, residential facilities, transitional centres and court and police cells managed by Corrective Services or Juvenile Justice.

The position will be modelled on an independent inspector in Western Australia. A similar position exists in systems in England, Scotland and Wales.

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