Queensland's 'prison time bomb' goes off

Issue 

By Karen Fredericks

BRISBANE — Less than a month after its opening, 200 to 300 high- and medium-security prisoners have "trashed" Queensland's newest prison, Woodford Correctional Centre, in protest over insufficient and poor quality food, non-smoking rules and operational bungling by prison officers and management.

On April 1, around 120 prisoners "melted" their way out of the "secure" accommodation block by applying toasters stuffed with clothing and other materials to internal walls constructed of lexen — a transparent substance designed to withstand the application of force, but evidently not heat. They gained control of the central officers unit and entered a lower security "residential" section, where they were joined by hundreds of other angry prisoners.

Tactical response officers used dogs and gas to force the prisoners back in their cells, where they have been "locked down" indefinitely, unable to access telephones.

Woodford was designed for a "non-smoking" policy, with lexen walls instead of bars. Prisoners were offered nicotine patches at a cost of $42 for a three-week supply (prisoners earn $2-3 per day). When prisoner and officer unrest over the ban peaked in the first week of the centre's operation, management designated a small number of outdoor smoking areas for use between 7am and 7pm.

Prisoners Legal Centre solicitor Karen Fletcher told Green Left Weekly this was only one of the prisoners' grievances. "Prisoners in the kitchens are working 11 hour shifts for $3 a day. On the first day nobody received food for 24 hours and officers didn't know which button to press to open which door. Education and other programs are still not in place and everyone out there is bored, hungry and really pissed off — and they can't even have a smoke! This incident has been brewing for a long time, and it will be followed by more. All the tough talk in the world will not stop prisoners jacking up when they are treated so badly."

Corrective services minister Russell Cooper has promised further jail terms of up to 14 years for prisoners found to have led the riot.

The incident is a major embarrassment to the Queensland Corrective Services Commission and state government, who have touted Woodford as state of the art and the model for a string of new prisons to be built over the next three years.

Around $95 million of the state's $108 million new capital works announced in December will be spent on new prisons. Queensland has the fastest growing imprisonment rate in Australia, growing from 89 per 100,000 in 1992-3 to 124 in 1995-6. Three years ago there were 2068 people in Queensland prisons. Today there are around 3528. The incarceration of these people costs Queensland taxpayers $45,000 per prisoner per year.

Changes to the Queensland Criminal Code and Penalties and Sentences Act passed on March 26 will swell prison numbers even further, denying parole to long-term prisoners until they have served at least 80% of their sentences (up from 50%) and introducing a number of new offences with "tougher" sentences. State opposition leader Peter Beattie "welcomed" the tougher penalties, saying only that the ALP would have added even more new offences to the code.

Responding to concerns that the government's "tough stance" on crime will cost taxpayers a fortune when public spending is being cut back in every other area, premier Rob Borbidge said that "the community — especially the families of victims of heinous crime — are happy to spend money on more prisons so that criminals can rot in hell".