The Victorian government continued its attack on civil rights last week with the announcement that new prison cells would be built at train stations for use by protective services officers (PSOs).
Public money is being used to build these new cells along with spending on other infrastructure to assist the officers. The Age reported on June 6 that: "In order to accommodate the operational needs of the officers, including secure administration areas and bathroom facilities, the state government has budgeted $78 million in the 2013/14 financial year to update infrastructure at train stations where PSOs operate. Included in those upgrades are closed-off detention cells which are designed to house criminals until police officers arrive on-scene."
The Age quoted Michelle McDonnell from community legal project Your Rights on Track: "It is inappropriate that the vulnerable may spend time in holding cells," she said.
"The police guidelines say that people will only be in the holding cells until they can be transferred, but in practice the length of time is going to vary according to the police's resources and the time of day."
Your Rights on Track is aimed at supporting commuters who may be affected by the PSO roll out.
The project, coordinated by the Federation of Community Legal Centres in partnership with Smart Justice for Young People and the Mental Health Legal Centre, is taking the lead by providing information to train travellers about PSO powers and their rights as commuters.
Your rights on Track says "There are real community concerns that PSOs armed with semi-automatic guns with both quasi-police and ticket inspector powers – but with less training than police – are potentially a real safety risk, especially for vulnerable people."
In December last year the Age reported that "Protective services officers are handing out hundreds of fines to disabled, mentally ill and homeless people for minor infringements."
"In one case, protective services officers fined a teenager with a severe intellectual disability 13 times in two months for riding his bike on a platform, failing to wear a helmet, failing to have a bike light and obstructing a pathway by sitting on steps. Some of the fines were issued 20 minutes apart."
The increased powers and lack of accountability of PSOs create the real danger of human rights abuses and of deaths in custody.
Many train stations in Victoria remained unstaffed, causing potential safety dangers for the public.
The lack of staff also means that toilets on many stations have been closed since the Kennet government in the 1990s.
The solution to public safety lies not in more police and prisons, but more staff, lighting and train services for all commuters.
[For more info on your rights and PSOs, visit www.fclc.org.au.]