Power outages at Darwin Correctional Centre spark concerns over access to justice, prisoner welfare

power outages at darwin correctional centre spark concerns over access to justice, prisoner welfare

The Darwin Correctional Centre has been experiencing power outages for about two weeks.  (Supplied)

Power outages at Darwin’s only adult prison have delayed court appearances of prisoners on remand, as the number of people in jail waiting to be sentenced continues to soar.

Outages at the Darwin Correctional Centre have been occurring intermittently for the past two weeks up to Monday, and at times cutting all audiovisual links between the prison and courts.

It meant court appearances with prisoners appearing via video link had to be adjourned.

The disruptions have also prevented lawyers from visiting their clients at times over the past few weeks, causing further delays to cases.

Concerns have been raised in recent months about staffing shortages and overcrowding at the jail, with prisoners sleeping on mattresses on the floor due to rising numbers of people on remand.

Darwin barrister John Lawrence SC said he hadn’t been able to contact one of his clients in custody on Friday, forcing the case to be postponed for a second time.

“If the prisoners can’t get legal advice and give their side of the story, then the lawyers can’t advise them that they should be pleading guilty and they should be going to court next week, or they should be pleading not guilty and having a trial,” he told ABC Radio Darwin earlier this week.

“Then the system is effectively clogged up.”

Beth Wild from the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), told ABC Radio Darwin the agency’s lawyers also had prison visits cancelled last-minute because of the outages.

She said it could take weeks to reschedule the visits, slowing the progress of cases through the courts, and keeping people on remand in prison for longer.

“There is a real access to lawyers and clients problem occurring,” she said.

Outages spark concerns for staff, prisoner welfare

A Northern Territory Correctional Services spokesman said the recent power outages had been planned, and had occurred as a part of an “electrical system upgrade required by the building operator as part of the contract agreement”.

He said the maintenance had led to “systematic” electrical shutdowns across multiple zones of the prison, and caused “short periods of disruption” to some services including prisoners’ social and professional visits, payphone calls and use of some facilities.

The interruption to audiovisual links services to the courts had been unexpected, the spokesman said.

However, Brett Collins from the prisoner rights advocacy group, Justice Action, said it was unusual for prisons to experience power outages at all.

“We’ve never heard of an outage happening in any other prison,” he said.

“We would have expected that even the security obligations alone would have compelled there to be some sort of backup system for that to happen in the Darwin Correctional Centre.

“This would not be accepted in any other service.”

Mr Collins said the group had received complaints from families of prisoners in the centre, saying they haven’t been able to speak with their loved ones inside.

“Normally they would have reasonable access to be able to receive phone calls, but increasingly … they haven’t been able to receive contact,” he said

“The rights to access to lawyers and the right for families to have continued access are really basic, these are human rights,” he said.

However, the NT Corrections spokesperson said although there were “periodic telephone outages” as a result of the power outages, there was “minimal impact to prisoners receiving phone calls from outside the facility”.

Local prisoner advocate Renae “Rocket” Bretherton said the multiple service disruptions had been having an impact on prisoner welfare.

“I know that tensions are high right now in there,” she said.

“[Prisoners] have had their visits cancelled, they’ve not been able to attend court by , they haven’t been able to have any contact whatsoever with their families or any loved ones …. until [Tuesday] afternoon when the phones went back on.”

“It wouldn’t be a good situation in there at the moment.”

Overcrowding an ongoing problem, as remand population soars

As of Monday, August 8, the Darwin Correctional Centre, which has a capacity of 1,174, was holding 1,196 prisoners – a surplus of 22.

NT Correctional Services noted that that figure included the high number of people on remand.

An “overcrowd arrangement” in place means the prison is able to accommodate an extra 76 prisoners on top of that its capacity, the NT Correctional Services spokesman said.

He admitted the overcrowding arrangements were “not ideal” but said the service “considers they are adequate to ensure safety, decency and wellbeing of all prisoners”.

Staff stop work over issues

On Sunday, health and safety representatives on duty at the prison called a staff work stoppage, citing safety concerns arising from the intermittent power outages.

However, NT Correctional Services Commissioner Matthew Varley on Monday challenged whether that was warranted, by asking NT WorkSafe to look into the circumstances of the stop-work order.

An NT WorkSafe spokesman said the service would examine whether the health and safety representatives “had sufficient grounds to exercise their powers” when they ordered the stoppage.

The union representing Northern Territory prison workers declined to comment on the issues that had triggered the work stoppage, and the Commissioner for NT Correctional Services also chose not to comment while the WorkSafe inquiry was ongoing.

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