Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Inspector General of Corrective Services Debate

Dear Friend,

Below is our response to Justice Minister Hatzistergos' comments in a debate in Parliament on July 2, 2003 regarding the impending decision about the future of the Inspector General of Corrective Services in NSW.

We provided this information so that the Minister can carefully consider his decision in light of the many misunderstandings exposed by his comments.

The Hon John Hatzistergos
Minister for Justice
VIA FACSIMILE: 9230

Dear Mr. Hatzistergos,

RE: Inspector General Debate


Thank you for your positive and open discussion in the debate in Parliament regarding the position of Inspector General on 2 July 2003.

This letter is to respond to your contribution to that debate, in order to clarify some issues of which we are aware. The comments you made which we would like to respond to are:

1) Ombudsman.
2) Avenue of Complaint.
3) Official Visitors Reporting.

1) Ombudsman.


a)"One option involves having an organisation or inspector-general with more powers and one that reports to Parliament. What is the point of having the Ombudsman's office, because it does that as well? Why do we not let the Ombudsman do it?"

Attached please find a copy of a letter we received from Jennifer Agius, Senior Investigation Officer for the Ombudsman. In that letter, she states,

"the Ombudsman does not perform a role of reviewing individual cases where discretionary decisions are made by public authorities, such as Corrective Services."

This statement is very clear and conveys an attitude that is consistent with our past experiences in dealing with the Ombudsman. The statement stands by itself and isn't qualified in any way by the context.

In a phone conversation with us on May 29, 2003 she explained that she was not saying she "can't" investigate an unfair or unreasonable act but that it should involve improper purpose or corruption.

The letter quoted above is in regard to the case of Ms. J T. Ms. T stands accused of, but has denied having taken drugs to her husband in jail. One reason given by the Ombudsman's office for refusing to review the T case was that she still had the option of pursuing an appeal within the Department of Corrective Services if she had additional evidence to present. Senior Assistant Commissioner McLean said,

"If you have any matters in the meantime that you wish to raise that would show cause why the above prohibition should not continue, you may contact this office in writing."

For this reason, Ms. T requested to see the video evidence used by DCS to make the decision to ban her and her son from seeing the child's father in order to challenge the decision and have it properly reviewed. She was told that the video was being held by police for a pending court case and could not be released to her. Therefore, with no access to evidence that she believes will prove her innocence, it would appear to us that Ms. T had exhausted her options for appeal within DCS. She had been invited by Senior Assistant Commissioner McLean to write to the NSW Ombudsman, only to be told to return to DCS. In the time that this correspondence was being conducted, a young child has been denied access to his father.

In a similar case, Mr. P C 's children were refused access to their mother because he had been accused of taking drugs in to her. The children's visiting rights were re-instated only after the case was written about by Paola Totaro, in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald. Once the article was published and the issue exposed to public scrutiny, the Department reversed its decision and apologised for the error. It is disturbing to us that the media could see the unfairness of the decision, but the authority charged with the task of investigating unfair decisions, could not in a similar case.

Additionally, the Inspector General noted in a letter dated 28 February 2003 that the Ombudsman's office was conducting a "systemic inquiry into visiting bans". Therefore, there was good cause to investigate Ms. T's case.

b) "The Hon. John Ryan said the Ombudsman is a bit of a farce because he investigated only three matters out of 4,000 but his aim is to resolve problems, not to escalate them and create huge investigations and royal commission inquiries. The job of the Ombudsman is to resolve issues, that is also the job of the visitors, and that is the job of the inspector-general."

In the NSW Ombudsman Annual Report 2001-2002, it shows 4,057 complaints made in the "Corrections" section. Of those, only 382 (9%) were "determined" including ones that were determined to be out of their jurisdiction. For the remaining 3,675, there is no distinction made between complaints that were resolved without being "determined" and complaints that were refused.

In contrast, the Inspector General's Annual Report 2001-2002 showed 1486 complaints, with 1409 being "finalised" (94%).One way to resolve a complaint without investigations is to use the services of official visitors. Twenty-eight percent of complaints to the Inspector General were resolved by official visitors in 2001-2.

In contrast, no mention is made of official visitors in the Ombudsman's Report. Official visitors we have spoken to say they have not heard from the Ombudsman's office for over a year.

2) Avenue of Complaint.

a) "At present prisoners have three choices, particularly in the gao's I spoke about this morning. They can push one button for the inspector-general, another button for the Ombudsman, and another button for the complaints hotline├┐Interestingly, two-thirds of prisoners using that facility choose to contact the Ombudsman."

Whilst visiting Emu Plains and Mulawa Inmate Development Committees (IDC), we spoke with some of their delegates. From December 2002 to March 2003, the phone "button" connecting prisoners to the office of the Inspector General stopped working at both prisons (there is also a report that the IG button was also not working at the MRRC). This would account for the discrepancy in the choice of avenue for complaint.

One delegate from Emu Plains IDC said,

"The overwhelming choice for complaints is to the Inspector General. By far, that office is more responsive to individual prisoner complaints than the Ombudsman."

This contradicts your statement, which is not accompanied by any reference as to source. It is urgently important that prisoners true preference is factored in your decision, as you also see this as important.

For this reason, we request that you ask all the IDC's the following questions and make their responses available to Parliament. Alternatively, if your office is not able to conduct this survey at this time, Justice Action can coordinate the survey with the approval of your office:

How many complaints have prisoners in your jail made to public bodies? Who did they complain to? (Ombudsman, Inspector General, or DCS)

Did they respond?
What action was taken as a result of the complaints?
Were they satisfied with the result of their complaints?
Which did they find the most effective?


b) "the majority of visitors have also criticised (the Inspector General), as have the inmate development committees. Dalton and Avery went to the committees to find out what they thought, and they said that the Ombudsman was providing a better service."

We note in the Review of the Office of Inspector General that only one IDC (Mulawa) was consulted, and this IDC has not met for over six months. Only four official visitors were consulted, and of them, two stated a preference for the Ombudsman. This does not constitute a majority and contradicts information we have received from official visitors and IDC chairpersons. This point was made to your office on 13 June 2003, in our response to the Review. Your continued use of this information without alternate sources of reference is severely misleading. We are concerned that the information you are using is incorrect and that your decisions will be adversely effected by it.

3) Official Visitors Reporting

"I will not have official visitors running off to external agencies to try to get redress. It is important that the department knows about problems first hand and deals with them immediately. I will not accept it waiting for months to have things investigated├┐. I will not accept an individual's complaint first being handed over to the Ombudsman or the inspector-general."

This statement is misleading to anyone who isn't familiar with the process of official visitor inspections. It is our understanding from speaking to official visitors that their first report is made to the Governor of the jail after each visit, if they are available. Kay Valder, official visitor for Mulawa reported that the Governors are often not available to meet the official visitor and in her experience over many years, it was often the same. The second report is made directly to you, the Minister, on a semi-annual basis. It is also our understanding that there is no requirement for the official visitors to report to the Inspector General or the Ombudsman.

The Inspector General is consulted by official visitors for advice as necessary. There was no recommendation in the Review, and no suggestion has been made by anyone that we are aware of, that this process of reporting should be changed.

Please respond as a matter of urgency and acknowledge receipt by return fax.

Sincerely,

Justice Action
July 15, 2003
ENC: Letter 3 July 2003, Jennifer Agius, Senior Investigation Officer for the Ombudsman

CC: Participants to the debate


By Justice Action posted 16 July 03

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