Prison visits, access to legal support, prison advice services, police visits and interviews, welfare, religious services, medical care, letters and telephone calls and leave for special purposes are issues that greatly impact a prisoner’s experience in prison. Each of these factors are governed and protected.
Visits with relatives and friends
As outlined above, prisoners are entitled to one half-hour visit by relatives and friends each week. The provisions of the Corrections Act that govern such visits are section 42 and regulations 60–68. See also section 38 and regulation 64, which govern contact and residential visiting programs.
Restrictions on visits involve the number of persons who may visit, time limitations, the degree of supervision and whether body contact is permitted. The restrictions imposed depend upon the prisoner’s classification. During visits, the prisoner may be permitted physical contact with visitors to varying degrees. Prison officers supervise visits, and prisoners are required to wear approved contact-visit overalls.
Prior to visiting, partners, friends and relatives of prisoners should make sure that the person they are visiting has put them on their visit list. Also when attending to visit with a prisoner, to avoid the delays sometimes associated with visiting a person in custody, visitors should ensure that they have sufficient identification. Visitors need to have 100 points of identification, which may include a combination of passport, drivers licence, Medicare card, rates notice and/or birth certificate. There may be some slight variation between different prisons so it is prudent to check with the relevant prison prior to attempting to visit.
There may be some restrictions on particular visitors to prison. These include persons with a prior criminal history. Such visitors typically have to seek permission from the prison manager to visit someone in custody. The visits sections of prisons should have a form for that purpose. If they do not, it will be necessary to write a letter to the prison manager in which the prisoner is currently classified, requesting permission to visit.
In certain circumstances consideration for contact visits is given to prisoners held in high security units who are defined as either management prisoners (those with behavioural problems or who are a threat to the safety and security of the prison or the public) or as high security prisoners (those who constitute a risk to others or are potential or past escapees).
It is best to check with the prison to determine the visiting rights of the prisoner and any specific rules governing visits at the particular prison. Prisoners must record the full name, address and birth date of potential visitors on their prison visit lists.
Prisoners can refuse to accept visits from other people, including families, relatives and friends.
The prison manager has the discretion to extend or limit visiting rights. Special exceptions can be made for compassionate reasons.
There are restrictions as to what items can be given to prisoners. All gifts must be passed through the property section of the particular prison. Again, it is wise to check with the particular prison as to what items and what amount of money is permitted to be placed in the prisoner’s property.
There are, of course, restrictions on who can visit a prison. The Corrections Act requires visitors to give prescribed information. This includes the person’s identity, address, occupation, age, relationship (if any) to the prisoner and the purpose of the visit.
Section 43 gives the prison manager the power to refuse or terminate visits for security reasons. Prison managers have the power to prohibit visitors from entering all or any prisons in Victoria if they believe on reasonable grounds that the good order or security of prisons or the safety of prisoners or visitors to prisons is threatened.
Visitors will be subject to searches of themselves and their belongings (ss 44, 45, 46). The prison manager has the power to direct a person to submit to drug or alcohol tests. If a person tests positive to such a test the prison manager can refuse prison entry.
Under the Victorian Prison Drug Strategy, any visitor caught introducing drugs or drug paraphernalia into a prison will be banned from visiting for a minimum of 12 months. If such a visitor is convicted of introducing drugs or drug paraphernalia into a prison, they will be denied entry into any Victorian prison.
Legal representatives are permitted to visit at times fixed by the Corrections Regulations, between 8.30 am – 3.30 pm. Visits outside these hours are permitted with permission of the minister, the secretary or the prison manager. Legal representatives are permitted to exchange legal documents with the prisoner, and with the prison manager’s permission, the prisoner may retain legal documents in their possession (s 40; reg 53). It is best to check with the prison to confirm these professional visiting hours.
VLA has established the Prison Advice Service (see “Contacts”), whose members attend the metropolitan prisons on a regular basis. Country prisons are also visited by solicitors from regional offices of VLA on a regular basis.
The primary function of the service is the provision of legal advice in relation to forthcoming criminal matters, whether indictable or summary. Other functions include the provision of legal advice in relation to a wide range of non-criminal matters. VLA staff members also take on non-legal work arising from prison visits, such as contacting relatives or prisoners or other legal practitioners, court services, correctional authorities, police, medical personnel, social workers and other community workers. (For further information, see How legal aid can help.)
A police officer may visit a prisoner between 8.30 am–3.30 pm. A prisoner may refuse such a visit or, if visited, may refuse to be interviewed (s 41). Following the introduction of section 464B into the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic) (“Crimes Act (Vic)”), police may now make an application to the Magistrates’ Court for an order permitting them to interview a prisoner for offences other than offences for which they are held in custody. This amendment to the Crimes Act (Vic) does not remove the prisoner’s right to silence or privilege against self-incrimination.
Welfare issues of prisoners are dealt with by correctional officers at the relevant prison location and prisoners also have access to religious services provided by various religious denominations who provide pastoral and other chaplaincy services. Prisoners are entitled to assistance from officers of the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (VACRO) (see “Contacts”).
All prisoners may send and receive letters. However, the general right to receive letters (under s 47(1)(m), (n)) has been altered, and is subject to sections 47AA–47E of the Corrections Act. Parliament has now made it a specific offence for a prisoner to send distressing or traumatic letters to the victim of an offence (s 47DA Corrections Act).
There is a statutory presumption that letters sent to and received from the minister or the Secretary to the Department of Justice, the Corrections Commissioner, an official visitor, member of parliament, legal practitioner representing or providing legal advice to the prisoner, the Victorian Ombudsman, Health Complaints Commissioner or the Human Rights Commissioner will not be opened by prison staff.
That presumption may be displaced, and the letter disposed of, if the prison manager reasonably suspects that the letter or unauthorised article or substance could pose an immediate threat to any person (s 47A). Section 47B permits certain confidential letters to be inspected by the prison manager, thus further displacing the statutory presumption in section 47(1)(m). Letters to and from a legal practitioner, the Health Complaints Commissioner or the Equal Opportunity Commissioner may be inspected in such a manner. The prison manager is given the power to “hold” the letter and to notify the prisoner concerned, their legal representative and the relevant commissioner of their suspicions. The purpose of the notification is to allow the letter to be opened and inspected before those parties. Importantly, especially from the perspective of legal professional privilege, the prison manager is not permitted to read or censor the letter.
The other important amendment concerning letters to and from prisoners is section 47C, which permits all other letters to be opened and read to determine whether or not the contents of the letter may jeopardise the safety and security of the prison and the safe custody and welfare of the prisoner or community safety. There is no reasonable suspicion test in this section, or other objective criteria to determine when letters may be opened and read. The statute appears to envisage that all letters not falling within section 47(1)(m) will be read by prison authorities. An interesting issue that may arise in the future, given the nature of this legislative change and significant power given to correctional authorities to read prisoner correspondence, is a complaint by a prisoner for breach of privacy.
The use of telephones is a privilege available to prisoners to maintain communication links with family, friends and essential community ties. Prisoners may use phones, where they are available for prisoner use and at times determined by the prison manager. The prisoner is responsible for meeting any costs for telephone calls, unless exempted by the prison manager on welfare or legal grounds, or in other exceptional circumstances. Where the prison manager is satisfied there is a strong probability that a prisoner’s use of the phone will constitute a threat to the security of the prison or the safety of the public, the call may be recorded. The use of phones is monitored by a Prisoner Telephone Control System, nation-wide and across all security classifications. The monitoring system restricts a prisoner to calling 10 phone numbers, all of which must be registered and approved by the prison manager.
In addition to such direct forms of communication, the welfare officers of Corrections Victoria, officers of VACRO, the Prison Advice Service, and other authorised people can act as intermediaries between prisoners and their families. They can be most helpful in this role in stressful situations, and prisoners are entitled to request their assistance. For Indigenous prisoners and their families and friends, contact with the designated Aboriginal Liaison Officer at the relevant prison can often be very helpful.
The Secretary to the Department of Justice has the power to permit an imprisoned person to be temporarily absent from the prison for any approved purpose (s 57 Corrections Act). Approved purposes include visiting families, relatives and friends, attending an educational or training institution, participating in sport or other recreational activities, seeking employment, attending a funeral or obtaining necessary medical or psychiatric attention.
Under section 57 of the Corrections Act (see also regs 48–49 Corrections Regulations), the Secretary may issue a Custodial Community Permit to a prisoner authorising the prisoner to be absent from the prison for a specified period.
Custodial Community Permits fall into two categories:
1 Corrections Administration Permits (s 57A Corrections Act); and
2 Rehabilitation and Transition Permits (s 57B Corrections Act).
Such permits are allowed for purposes relating to the health, physical fitness or education of the prisoner; or for the administration of criminal justice. More specifically, a corrections administration permit may be issued for purposes relating to the following:
• administration of justice;
• contact with a Department of Human Services worker (for intellectually disabled prisoners);
• to visit a person with whom the prisoner has a long-standing personal relationship if that person is seriously ill or in acute personal need;
• to attend a funeral of someone with whom the prisoner had a long-standing personal relationship;
• to visit another prison where a close member of a prisoner’s family is imprisoned.
Such permits may also be issued for a prisoner for the above purposes (as well as for “any other compassionate purpose”) to travel interstate. Participating states and territories as at 1 July 2009 are Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and the ACT. Prisoners may be asked if they are able to contribute to the cost of an interstate leave of absence. Amendments to the Corrections Act have extended the definition of “compassionate purpose” in relation to Indigenous prisoners, who may now seek a custodial community permit to enable them to be present at an occasion of special significance to their immediate or extended family (s 82(c)).
A rehabilitation and transition permit may be issued for purposes relating to the following:
• to take part in a pre-release program designed to facilitate rehabilitation, re-integration, or preparation for release;
• the physical fitness or education of the prisoner;
• to undertake unpaid community work; or
• for the maintenance of the prisoner’s family ties.
All rehabilitation and transition permits must form part of a structured permit plan, with both timelines and outcomes developed by the prisoner and their case worker and approved in advance. As prisoners progress through their rehabilitation and transition plans, they may become eligible to progress to undertaking unescorted permits.
The decision whether or not to grant leave is made at the discretion of the Secretary. Application is made through the prison manager or through the local Review and Assessment Committee. Prior to any permit being issued a comprehensive security and risk assessment is conducted, with community safety being the paramount consideration. Also, there are strict eligibility criteria and duration restrictions for each category of permit that apply to all prisoners and which are detailed in the Operational Guidelines for Corrections Administration Permits, Rehabilitation and Transition Permits and Interstate Leaves of Absence.
Prisoners on permits can be escorted by an officer or unescorted; the determination of this will be subject to an individual risk assessment. The period a prisoner spends on such leave is counted as part of the time served. Such applications are subject to regulations and were formerly granted as custodial community permits. They have now been replaced by the Corrections Administration Permits and Rehabilitation and Transition Permit Program. Depending on the purpose of the leave from the prison, a prisoner will receive a “Corrections Administration Permit” or “Rehabilitation and Transition Permit” (see also Local Operating Procedures).