Prisoners can make requests or complaints to various people both inside and outside their own prison. Official visitors and Victorian Ombudsman are two important external avenues prisoners may make both requests and complaints to.
Where to direct requests or complaints
Prisoners can direct requests or complaints to a wide variety of people inside and outside their own particular prison (s 47(1)(j), (m) Corrections Act).
Within the prison, requests and complaints are handled at a variety of levels. Prisoners have the right to direct requests and complaints to the officer in charge of their section, and also to the prison manager. The prison manager must be available at reasonable times to receive requests and complaints from prisoners, to record all such requests and to take whatever action the prison manager considers necessary.
Prisoners may direct requests or complaints to any outsider they wish (e.g. judges, members of parliament, ministers of the Crown). It is the policy of Corrections Victoria to forward such letters unless they are threatening or harassing in nature. These letters are subject to normal censorship as set out in regulation 17 of the Corrections Regulations and sections 47A–47E of the Corrections Act.
All magistrates, County Court judges and Supreme Court judges have the right to attend and inspect prisons when they see fit (s 34).
The Corrections Act provides that for each prison the “minister may appoint official visitors”. In general, these visitors may visit the prison to which they have been appointed as they see fit to inspect the facilities, observe the workings of the prison and discuss any topic they feel appropriate with prisoners and staff. The Official Visitors Program is now administered by the Justice Assurance and Review Office (see “Contacts”).
If the prison manager has 24 hours’ notice of an intended visit by an official visitor, a notice must be posted in the prison that is noticeable to prisoners and prison officers of the time and date of the intended visit. The prison manager must also bring to the attention of the official visitor the names of prisoners and officers who have requested to see the official visitor.
The visitors are expected to report the results of their visits periodically to the minister responsible for correctional services. If they feel it is appropriate, they may discuss issues with the minister at any time. A list of official visitors can be obtained from the prison manager of any prison or from the Justice Assurance and Review Office (see “Contacts”).
Under the Ombudsman Act 1973 (Vic) and section 47(1j) of the Corrections Act, a prisoner has the right to complain to the Victorian Ombudsman (“the ombudsman”). (For general information about ombudsmen, see Taking a problem to an ombudsman.)
Some matters are of particular concern to prisoners. The first is that the ombudsman will not usually intervene until all other avenues of redress have been tried. This means that a prisoner will usually have to have made a complaint to the prison authorities and to have had it refused.
Second, the issue may be one where staff shortages or the physical conditions of the prison prevent any redress. These issues are matters for the Minister for Corrections, and the ombudsman has no jurisdiction concerning the actions of the minister.
Finally, the substance of the complaint must involve an “administrative act” by a prison official. So, for example, the ombudsman has no power to take action in respect of a complaint that one prisoner assaulted another, which would be a police matter. The ombudsman might, however, have jurisdiction to intervene if the prison authorities knew of the danger of such an assault and failed to take adequate precautions to prevent it.
This distinction between “administrative act” and other complaints is difficult, but in doubtful cases it is best to assume that some administrative act has been involved and send the complaint to the ombudsman.
The ombudsman introduced a telephone complaint procedure for prisoners. Calls on the toll free line to the ombudsman are limited to 12 minutes and are answered between 9 am and 5 pm weekdays. To contact the ombudsman the prisoner must enter their prisoner ID number, followed by their PIN, then press *#05. The prisoner will then be connected directly to the ombudsman’s office. These calls are not recorded or monitored.
The introduction of a toll free number at Victorian prisons for prisoners to make complaints to the ombudsman is an important recent initiative and makes it clear that the ombudsman will entertain prisoners’ complaints. However, prisoners must try to resolve their complaints with prison management first. If the ombudsman finds a complaint to be justified, a remedial course of action is recommended to the prison authorities. Prison authorities are not obliged to implement the suggested action.
Note that the rate of substantiation by the ombudsman for complaints by prisoners is very low, and that office has very limited power to remedy a situation to the satisfaction of the prisoner.