Police on Jail Duty: Prison Overflow

Kristin Shorten and Jeremy Pierce | 17 November, 2011 | The Courier-Mail

jail
NOT SUITABLE: Watchhouses, designed for short-term remands, are being used to house prisoners as the state’s jails run out of room, a situation condemned as bordering on cruelty. Source: The Courier-Mail

POLICE are being pulled off the beat to supervise prisoners in watchhouses as the state’s jails run out of room.

Police Deputy Commissioner Ian Stewart recently met Queensland Corrective Services to voice concerns police resources were being diverted to prisoner care.

He said Cairns, Townsville, Brisbane and Southport were under the most strain.

“We probably haven’t had this (overcrowding) problem to this degree in a number of years,” he said.

“There are many reasons for it including staffing issues, the ability (of QCS) to process prisoners and the number of beds available in corrective services facilities.”

Police fear the crisis will worsen during next week’s Schoolies and the upcoming party season, when watchhouses often reach their limits.

But there is no room at nearby Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre, which is housing nearly 1000 prisoners.

The Gold Coast legal fraternity has long-held concerns about clients spending weeks in crowded watchhouses designed for overnight stays, without access to sunlight, fresh air, exercise, medication or visitors.

Lawyers said Southport and Beenleigh lock-ups often held more than 80 people by Monday morning.

Mr Stewart would not rule out passing on the cost of police resources to QCS.

“Certainly there is a charge-back on all of the meals that relate to the care of those prisoners,” he said.

“There is no formal agreement in relation to charging corrective services any other fees at this stage but that’s not to say that won’t happen in the future.

“We work very closely with Corrective Services because we want to avoid the diversion of our police resources from having to work in the watchhouse situation in an extra capacity.”

Australian Council for Civil Liberties president Terry O’Gorman said using watchhouses for more than one night was unfair on police and prisoners.

“It’s dangerous to the mental health of the prisoners. The first week or two of post-court prison sentence is the time in which people are most vulnerable to self harm and suicide,” he said.

Mr O’Gorman urged police to bill Corrective Services.

“Money speaks and if Corrective Services is starting to lose money out of their budget to pay police for acting as jailers, that will work,” he said. “We would not only welcome but urge QPS to bill QCS, not only as a one-off, but every year.”

Gold Coast criminal lawyer Bill Potts said even those found guilty deserved compassion.

“Watchhouses were only designed for short-term remands and anything longer is bordering on cruelty,” he said.

“Jail is not all about punishment. It is also about rehabilitation and it is impossible to start your rehabilitation in that environment.”

Police and Corrective Services Minister Neil Roberts said prisoners were being transported to jail from watchhouses “as soon as possible”.

“I am advised that in recent weeks there has been more prisoners in QPS watchhouses than at the same time in previous years,” he said.

”In response to this, QCS has brought additional cells online in Brisbane and at Lotus Glen Correctional Centre near Cairns to help in alleviating demand on watchhouses.”