Notorious Melbourne Custody Centre 'seething' as state prison system nears capacity

Magistrates have started ordering costs against Corrections Victoria for its failure to transport inmates to courts as overcrowding in the state's prisons reaches crisis point.

A magistrate on Friday joined a number of her colleagues who have expressed frustration at prisoners not appearing for hearings or having to adjourn cases partheard because they have not been transported to court.

Brendan Money, one of Corrections' most senior figures, has admitted that the prison system is presently at almost 100 per cent capacity, which he attributes to more police arrests and recent parole reforms.

Magistrate Donna Bakos noted in Melbourne Magistrates Court that six prisoners had not been brought to her court, including two who had been booked in to make bail applications.

She said that the people who make such decisions should be made aware of it, that Chief Magistrate Peter Lauritsen was aware of the issue and that the court was doing its best to cope.

Victoria's prisons are presently operating at close to maximum capacity and legal sources have told Fairfax Media that some expect more than 1000 people to flood the system who have breached parole.

Lawyers have told Fairfax Media that the notorious Melbourne Custody Centre beneath Melbourne Magistrates Court is "seething" under the pressure-cooker atmosphere, with some fearing the crammed conditions will lead to outbreaks of violence.

Deputy Chief Magistrate Jelena Popovic earlier this month awarded costs against Corrections when a prisoner did not appear, describing the situation as "lamentable".

On the application of the accused's barrister, Phillip Bloeman, she awarded costs of $452 to Victoria Legal Aid.

Debra Coombs, a senior lawyer with the Victorian Government Solicitor's Office, appeared before Ms Popovic, as she has at other hearings when inmates have not been transported.

Ms Coombs tendered an affidavit by Brendan Money, the Assistant Commissioner with Corrections' sentence management branch, to Ms Popovic in which he said there had been a "significant increase in the prison population following more police arrests and recent reforms to the parole system".

Mr Money noted that a new 350-bed correctional facility, expected to be open this year, will now not start operating until 2015.

"These considerable changes have brought unanticipated additional prisoners into the prison system, without an opportunity for full preparation," he said.

Mr Money revealed that extra beds would be provided in five to six weeks at one prison and the Metropolitan Remand Centre while other building projects underway.

"The prison system, whilst running at nearly 100 per cent occupancy, has still been able to maintain the goal of people spending no longer than 14 days in police cells, although it is acknowledged this goal may be at times difficult to sustain," he said.

In comments to Fairfax Media on Friday, Corrections minister Edward O'Donohue said: "The Government has made no secret of the capacity issues in Victoria's prison system. The auditor-general has found this is largely caused by Labor's failure to build a new prison when it was told to five years ago.

"Corrections Victoria is now working hard to ensure there is enough capacity over the coming period while new prison beds are being built. The Coalition has funded new prison beds in each of its three budgets, including a new prison at Ravenhall.

"Current capacity constraints would also be less of an issue if Labor's botched Ararat prison expansion project had been completed on its original timetable, in December last year.

"More than 560 prison beds have been added to the system since the Government came to office, and another 1465 are in the pipeline.

"Victoria Police has been enormously cooperative in dealing with this situation. We realise that it is not an ideal situation and want to assure Police members that we are working to fix the capacity issues.

"Temporary fold-up beds have been introduced into suitable cottage accommodation at seven prisons to manage a peak in prisoner numbers.

"These beds will help reduce the pressure on police cells and deliver the beds required to meet demand while new prison infrastructure is being built.

"Corrections Victoria has consulted with prison management and staff on these arrangements and will only introduce temporary beds in areas where it is safe and appropriate to do so.

"Only prisoners with the appropriate security classification will be housed in temporary accommodation."

CPSU Prisons Organiser Andrew Capp claimed on Friday that the ‘‘Libs have only been opening Labor-funded beds so far and their $2 billion private prison is six years away’’.

He told Fairfax Media that the CPSU has seen four types of ‘‘emergency bed’’ arrangements established so far that included ‘‘camp beds’’ in the living in areas and such bedding being included in previously single cells to make ‘‘two to a cell’’.

Mr Capp also claimed there were camp beds in walk ways outside cells and newly created portable double up beds moved into previously single-bed cells.

‘‘These are not a solution nor a planned response from a minister who said they knew their policies would do this,’’ he said, adding that Mr O’Donohue should read the Occupational Health and Safety act on liability for when someone gets seriously hurt or killed."

Helen Fatouros, Victoria Legal Aid’s Director Criminal Law, told Fairfax Media on Friday it was concerned about overcrowding in police cells and has ‘‘raised this with Corrections Victoria’’.

‘‘The frequent movement of remand prisoners between police stations, because of a lack of accommodation, complicates our ability to represent our clients who are among the most vulnerable in the community,’’ Ms Fatouros said.

‘‘In our experience, moving clients from cells in one location to another has led to clients’ matters not being heard and in our clients not being able to contact their lawyer,’’ she added.

Fairfax Media is seeking comment from Mr Lauritsen.

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