Correctional Services (Accountability and Other Measures) Amendment Bill | SPEECH


The Hon. D.C. VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN (Stuart—Minister for Energy and Mining) (15:38): It is a pleasure to rise on the Correctional Services (Accountability and Other Measures) Amendment Bill 2020 on behalf of the people of Stuart. This is actually very important, and I would like to give the Minister for Correctional Services great credit for the work he has done here, including the very broad and deep consultation he has done on this bill as well. I think it is also important to point out that this bill did originate back in 2017 under the previous government. I think it is only fair to mention that, given the very kind comments made by the shadow minister yesterday with regard to the current minister.

Much has been canvassed about the bill. The member for Hammond I know has gone into great detail on it, and certainly the minister’s second reading explanation was very thorough, so let me just be sure that anybody who takes an interest in my speech understands that what this is really about is several different areas: disclosure of information relating to criminal history; remotely piloted aircraft, that is, drones, and that is very much about security and also the delivery of contraband; buffer zones; official visitors; the Parole Administrative Review Commissioner; restraints that are or are not to be used on prisoners in certain circumstances; and management of officers/employees of the department.

I mentioned consultation previously. I will not name all the people the minister and the Department for Correctional Services have engaged with, but some who really stand out to me are the Commissioner for Victims’ Rights, the Director of the Legal Services Commission, the Chief Executive of the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, the Chief Executive Officer of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, the General Secretary of the Public Service Association, the head of the Offenders Aid and Rehabilitation Services and the Presiding Member of the Parole Board.

There are about the same number again, but those ones jump out at me as an illustration of extremely thorough consultation and with a wide range of organisations and people who I know would have a very wide range of views as well—not all of them complementary views, and that is ‘complementary’ with an ‘e’. The minister has done a very good job in bringing all of this together in a tough situation.

Speaking of tough situations, as a local member of parliament with Port Augusta Prison in my electorate, and previously with a different boundary having had the Cadell Training Centre in my electorate, and also in fact having been a shadow minister for correctional services for a long time and having visited all the prisons back then and had very thorough discussions with all the managers and many staff back then, one of the highest priorities from my perspective is with regard to the treatment of the people who work in the prisons.

Of course, treatment of the prisoners is vitally important, that goes without saying, as are right care, the right treatment, the right nourishment, the right access to medication and the right access to training. All those things are very important, but the treatment of the people who work there is incredibly important as well. It is tough work.

I have friends who have worked in Correctional Services as prison officers for 20-plus years, and they love it. It is just right for them. They really enjoy the work. I have other friends who would never consider it, just would not do it. I even have half a dozen or so friends who, over the last probably four years when DCS was really trying to recruit and increase their staffing numbers, had a go at it thinking that it might be right for them, but it was not and so they ended up deciding to leave, and there is no shame in that. It is very difficult, very challenging work.

I find corrections, I have to say, fascinating. At one end of the spectrum it is the simplest of areas of government work: you have criminals and you take them off the streets and you keep them off the streets, but that is an extraordinarily extreme simplification of it. At the other end it is extraordinarily complex, interesting and incredibly important work as well. So I take my hat off to the people who work in these prisons.

Simultaneously, though, there is much in this bill which is about making sure that those people do the right thing. As in any workplace not everybody is perfect, and the prison system is no different from the legal system or the legal fraternity, perhaps, or the medical fraternity or the political fraternity. Members of parliament are not perfect, and that would be true of whatever workplace you wanted to look at: sportspeople or cleaners, bus drivers or accountants. It would not matter; the laws of averages apply to most things.

An enormous amount of work goes into making sure that people who enter DCS as staff members, and particularly as corrections officers, are tested and assessed and considered very deeply, but there are from time to time still difficulties. Some of those difficulties start with the staff member. Some of those difficulties, very unfortunately, are almost not of that person’s making.

I remember very well, probably six or seven years ago, a prison officer was found to have been doing the wrong thing in his job. As it turned out, his son had actually got himself into a whole lot of strife. His son had been put under extreme pressure by a bikie gang, and part of that pressure then came to bear on the prison officer, who was told without any doubt whatsoever that if the prison officer did not do what the bikie gang wanted him to do, his son would suffer the consequences—a terrible situation for any parent to be in. I am not singling anybody out as good or bad or right or wrong, I am just illustrating that people can find themselves in situations they should not be for a wide range of reasons, and that is certainly one example that I came across.

This bill is about many things, as I have already said, but one of them is about trying to make sure that prison officers do the right thing. I am so pleased that Nev Kitchin, the General Secretary of the PSA, was involved in this. I have had very productive conversations with him over quite a few years up until a few years ago when I was in that role. I have also had very productive conversations with friends and acquaintances who work in the prison system in Port Augusta, in Cadell and in Adelaide, as it happens, with regard to how you try to find the right balance. This same discussion, as we know, often applies to police officers and some other people in other critical-type roles with regard to security and behaviour, including security and behaviour after hours when they are not actually at their job.

It is about finding the right balance. On the one hand, there is the view that the Department for Correctional Services has employed a person and done incredibly thorough background checking, behavioural analysis, mental and psychological testing to be sure that the person has the best chance to be cut out for this type of work, etc. and, beyond that, when they are working in the system, they should not have to be under any other personal scrutiny with regard to what they do or how they operate because it should all have been taken care of and they are working in a system which should mean that those risks are eradicated or, at the very least, significantly minimised.

At the other extreme, some people hold the view: ‘Just search them anytime. Even away from work do drug testing and alcohol testing anytime. These people have incredibly vital roles and we must take no chances with them and go through them like a dose of salts.’ Of course, as is almost always the case, the best practice is somewhere between those two extremes. I know that the Minister for Correctional Services has tried very hard to get that right. I also know that in my discussions with Nev Kitchin previously and with friends, as I mentioned, over time the profession—if I can put it that way—has more and more willingly accepted the reality that more scrutiny of them is required and is warranted.

I would go so far as to say that the people I have come across who struck me as extremely good at their work generally said, ‘I would pretty much be happy for just about any scrutiny you would like. I don’t want to be dragged over for a sample of something too many times and have that interfere with what I’m trying to do to get on with my work and my life, but, really, I’m open for scrutiny.’ This is perhaps a bit of a harsh comment but the people I might personally have assessed as perhaps not so good at their job were typically the ones who took the other view and said, ‘There’s no place for that and I shouldn’t have to put up with it. It’s not necessary.’

I am sharing a personal value judgement there, but that is not really the point. The point I am trying to make is that in all these discussions, over a very long time, the weight of opinion has shifted in the minds of the people who do the work towards, ‘Let’s be more open, let’s be more transparent, let’s open ourselves up to scrutiny.’ I am not suggesting the full, intense, completely over-the-top type of scrutiny that I used as the extreme example before.

In that vein, it is important to be sure that the people we trust to do one of the toughest jobs that you could ever imagine—please do not for a second think that being a prison officer is a cushy job and that you just sort of turn up, you walk up and down the halls on the other side of the bars from the criminals and have no stress in your life, as is sometimes portrayed in old movies. In my experience, that is a long way from the reality. It is a tough and stressful job, mentally and occasionally physically. Overwhelmingly, prison officers throughout South Australia and no doubt other places are trying to do the very best they can.

I am very aware of how difficult it is to find the right landing in that area with regard to this bill. I am very pleased that the minister has done such a thorough job in determining where he is going to land. I am very pleased that the shadow minister in his speech yesterday said that he was very comfortable with this. Just on the off chance that he did not hear it earlier on, I am very pleased that this is a bill that was essentially initiated under the previous government and is now being implemented and delivered under the current government. In our way of democracy, that is probably a pretty good way to get things done and get both sides of politics on board for a very good result.

This is a good bill. It is imperfect, because it is just not possible to get everything 100 per cent right—I know that from my own area of work—but this is a really positive, good step forward. I know it will be good for people who work in the corrections system. I know it will be good for the general public at large, who are the primary beneficiaries of the corrections system. I am also confident that it will be good for prisoners, understanding that some prisoners might not think that much about being in prison is good, but I am sure that the work of the Department for Correctional Services and this bill, when it is implemented, will at least improve things for prisoners.

I support the bill. I am very grateful for the work that prison officers and other corrections staff, whether they be in Community Corrections—it is important to point out that there are two or three times as many people being managed through the community corrections part of the Department for Correctional Services than there are actually in prison. I am very grateful for the work that prison officers, other staff in prisons and the community corrections component staff and officers do.

Interestingly, Port Augusta Prison is now the largest employer in Port Augusta. It used to be the Port Augusta power station before it was closed a few years ago. Port Augusta Prison has also been expanded. That work is ongoing and there is still a great deal of construction happening there. When that is completed, Port Augusta Prison will be the largest prison in South Australia and all the people who work there, from the general manager all the way through to the most recent arrival in the office outside of the prison walls, are to be appreciated for the work that they do—the very important, very difficult, very complex work that they do on behalf of our whole state.