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Inspector identifies staff shortages and overcrowding as ongoing problems at Eastern Goldfields prison

Giovanni Torre -

Eastern Goldfields Regional Prison still struggles to attract and retain staff, which hinders the facility's ability to deliver services, the WA Inspector of Custodial Services warned in a new report out Tuesday.

Inspector Eamon Ryan noted improving community engagement, the opening of the prisoner art gallery Palya Walkaly-Walkalypa, examples of good staff-to-prisoner relationships, improved access to recreation time and education, and staff reporting satisfaction with making a contribution to opportunities for prisoners as "encouraging findings" from his inspection of the prison in 2023.

However, Mr Ryan said staff recruitment and retention remained "the most prevalent problem facing the prison".

"These issues were highlighted in our 2020 inspection at EGRP, and unfortunately limited progress has been made. In many respects staff shortages are even more urgent in the current context of an overcrowded prison system," Mr Ryan said on Tuesday.

"Difficulties in attracting and retaining staff at EGRP, particularly custodial staff, are leading to regular understaffing, staff burnout and reductions in services. Many custodial staff told us they were already undertaking overtime on a regular basis and were too fatigued to accept more."

While WA's Department of Justice recently announced a greater focus on recruitment, including running a local recruit school in the Goldfields area, Mr Ryan noted in his report that retention has also been a significant factor.

The ability for new staff to request a transfer out of the prison in a short time frame from commencement was again identified as an issue in 2023.

Mr Ryan noted the Department's decision to 'Support in Principle' a recommendation to review the EGRP incentive package which may have an impact on retention, and therefore staffing levels and the ability to deliver services and increase capacity.

Another "knock-on effect" of the staffing shortages was that whole units at the prison could not be staffed and remained empty. Resolving the staff shortages could mean up to 100 beds would be available to be brought online to relieve population pressure on the adult male estate.

"The rising custodial population and the high occupancy rates for maximum- and medium-security facilities in Perth and the regions has escalated to the point where most are at or nearing capacity. The adult male prisoner population recently exceeded the previous all-time high recorded in March 2020, and the conditions in many prisons have become unacceptable," Mr Ryan said.

"In the context of these circumstances, the inability to use all available units at EGRP is a missed opportunity to improve living conditions in EGRP and across the prison estate."

Human rights advocate Megan Krakouer told National Indigenous Times that Eastern Goldfields is a "predominantly Black prison" which needs Indigenous-led solutions.

"These initiatives are surface level and have not been driven by the First Nations people of the region. That is a grave mistake, one too often that the Department continues to make," she said.

"The Aboriginal Visitors Scheme, a recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, should be bolstered to ensure about 30 First Nations people are employed to provide connectivity, cultural sensitivities and profound engagements are genuine."

Ms Krakouer said the prison system "got it wrong with Cleveland Dodd" (the 16-year-old Indigenous boy who died in custody in Perth last October), and must embrace fundamental and comprehensive reforms guided by Indigenous leadership.

"There must be genuine partnerships forged with the local mob to ensure that employment opportunities are available for brothers and sisters leaving prison," she added.

Mr Ryan noted areas of good practice and service delivery at EGRP included: overall support for women prisoners accommodated at the prison; thorough risk-management processes for at-risk prisoners; improvement in access to primary health care; and a diverse range of meaningful educational opportunities were offered.

The Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services produced reports in 2017 and 2020 issuing, respectively, 11 and 17 recommendations for Eastern Goldfields Regional Prison. The new report makes 13 recommendations.

Mr Ryan told National Indigenous Times that the Department of Justice offered "support, or qualified support" to all 13 new recommendations.

"As part of our continuous inspection approach to each prison in between formal inspections, we do look at past recommendations made and if we believe they are still relevant and need work, we address this with the prison leadership or through the Department," he said.

"If the issue remains at the time or our next formal inspection, we address it either through the narrative and findings in our report or we will restate a recommendation if it continues to have same significant impact."

The Inspector said the key findings of the 2024 report "around resolving staffing shortages and making better use of accommodation infrastructure, repeated from 2021, have been supported by the Department and are being addressed by them increasing efforts around recruitment of staff, including a stated intention to run a local recruit school in the Goldfields, and their intention to review the EGRP incentive package".

"These are welcomed developments and positive steps towards maximising the use of the infrastructure available and services on offer in EGRP," he said.

"Otherwise, our report notes many positive developments observed during this inspection or implemented after the inspection, including a strategy to where possible avoid lockdowns and continue efforts to keep close to normal daily routines. The Department's response also noted the recruitment of health services staff, including a full-time mental health nurse."

The Department of Justice welcomed the report, which it said "recognises Eastern Goldfields Regional Prison as an impressive correctional facility".

The Department said Eastern Goldfields prisoners were offered "a range of meaningful opportunities including accredited adult education courses and vocational training programs tailored to the regional job market", and noted the report acknowledged "high enrolment numbers (which) demonstrated strong prisoner engagement in education and training".

Department Acting Director General Kylie Maj said the Palya Walkaly-Walkalypa art gallery demonstrated the "custodial estate's commitment to providing incarcerated people with access to purposeful activities".

"It helps foster a connection between prisoners and the community, helps break down barriers to the classroom and aids in their rehabilitation and reintegration," she said.

"Prisoners were also engaged in meaningful employment in the prison's industries and workshops as well as via the opportunity to work on external community services and projects."

The Department acknowledged that "tight labour conditions nationally and regional housing and skills shortages had placed pressure on EGRP's staffing and ability to attract and retain workers".

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