Why a new $1.1 billion prison in Victoria is sitting empty

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The decision to build a $1.1 billion prison near Geelong – which is now sitting idle – was influenced by an expected increase in the remand population as a result of the 2018 tightening of Victoria’s bail laws, the Yoorrook Justice Commission has been told.

Commissioner Maggie Walter on Wednesday asked Corrections Victoria head Larissa Strong if there was “a correlation” between the bail reforms and the decision to build the 1248-bed Western Plains Correctional Centre at Lara.

“The decision was very much based on the fact that we had an … increasing prison population, so, yes,” Strong said.

Corrections Victoria Commissioner Larissa Strong on Wednesday.Credit: James Eastoe-Collins/Yoorrook Justice Commission

The prison was “mostly intended” as a remand facility when work commenced, she said.

The commission’s inquiry into the injustices experienced by First Peoples in the state’s criminal justice and child protection systems has this week heard from government witnesses about the disproportionate impact that the bail law amendments have had on Indigenous people since 2018.

On Tuesday, Commissioner Kevin Bell, KC, described the impact as “unprecedented”.

In the year ending June 2022, 1190 people were held in prison custody without having been sentenced, according to data supplied in government submissions to the inquiry.

In the same period, 735 Aboriginal men and women were discharged from prison having been held in custody without being sentenced to a term of imprisonment.

The average length of stay for Indigenous women was 38 days, while the average for Indigenous men was about three months, according to witness evidence to the inquiry this week.

The commission was told that most people released from remand had initially been refused bail for the kind of minor offences that generally receive short prison sentences. That led to people pleading guilty to charges they may otherwise have contested because the time detained on remand while waiting to receive a court hearing was longer than the sentence they would likely get for the offence.

The latest prison population figures revealed 783 Aboriginal adult males were in custody as of Monday, making up 13 per cent of the prison population, with 49 per cent of them unsentenced.

There were 38 Aboriginal women in custody, making up 12 per cent of the female prison population, with 44 per cent on remand.

There were 11 Aboriginal young people in custody as of Wednesday, nine on remand.

Strong told the truth-telling inquiry on Wednesday that construction of the prison north of Geelong was completed in November. It has been handed to corrections to maintain and secure at an estimated cost of $36 million, including protecting against people breaking in to dig future escape tunnels.

“We don’t have money to operate that prison because our demand has dropped, so we don’t need to use those beds,” she said. “It’s a very large footprint. It has a number of security features.”

Strong agreed it was a concern the $1.1 billion was spent on a prison now sitting empty, saying “it’s an enormous amount of money”.

The coronial report into the death of Indigenous woman Veronica Nelson in early 2020, who was being held in remand at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre for minor offences, was also highly critical of the government’s 2018 amendments to the Bail Act.

The bail laws are to be wound back as part of sweeping reforms proposed by Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes. Under the plan, low-level offenders would no longer need to prove they won’t pose a risk to the community if released on bail. Instead, it would be up to police to make the case for bail to be refused.

The truth-telling inquiry also heard that youth justice in the state continued to experience “acute workforce challenges” leading to staff-related lockdowns. These strategic lockdowns led to Indigenous youth in custody spending long periods isolated in their cells, the commission heard.

Witnesses from the Justice Department provided evidence that between 40 per cent and 50 per cent of Aboriginal young people in custody were diagnosed with mental health issues, such as anxiety and depressive disorders. More than 70 per cent of Aboriginal men incarcerated in Victoria have a mental health issue and 92 per cent of Indigenous women in prison have also been diagnosed.

The inquiry heard some prisoners were unable to access prescribed medications and had to repeatedly change medications. Administrative constraints in processing prisoner applications to consult a doctor was also leading to people being held on remand being released before their mental health needs were met.

With AAP

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