Saturday, June 6

Quentin Dempster turns the spotlight on prison death cover-up

When will the NSW Labor government wake up? Prison deaths, and the failure to provide reasonable medical care to ill or geriatric prisoners, could cost it votes and destroy any faint hope it may have of re-election.

The scandal had registered only in scattered newspaper articles and the occasional blog. But last night, Quentin Dempster's NSW Stateline program on ABC television gave a disturbing report on the NSW Coroner's Court findings on the 2007 prison suicide of Adam Shipley (the subject of my previous post, on Thursday).

Stateline reporter Philippa McDonald interviewed Bill Beale, the department's former principal investigator, who had told the Coroner's Court that systemic failures in the management of inmates at risk contributed to the death of Shipley, who had a history of mental illness and self-harm.

Beale had resigned in disgust after his boss binned his report and substituted something much more bland – not the first time it had happened.

However, Stateline did not examine the broader questions of deaths in custory.

Grumpy Old Journo is the only commentator to have directly connected Shipley's death with other reports – the death of Mary Anne Roberts, who should have been in a nursing home, and the NSW Government's “couldn't give a stuff” response to the possibility Charlotte Lindstrom may die of acute anorexia – to conclude that in NSW, a prison sentence may well be a death sentence.


Historically, there's never been much public support for prison reform – it's been left to Quakers and the like. In Australia, our politicians are too frightened of “shock jock” radio thugs to speak up for reform.

But there is some support, and usually it's to be found in people who vote Labor because they believe it's the party with socially progressive policies.

However, the times they are a'changing. If Labor loses those voters, its re-election chances will move from “almost none” to “absolutely zilch”.

And Labor is losing those voters, as shown by Greens candidate Adele Carles's convincing win in the West Australian by-election for Fremantle on May 16. Admittedly, the old working-class port suburbs of Fremantle have gentrified over the past few decades – but that's no different from many electorates in Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle and other old industrial or port cities.

As this Crikey report said:

. . . Carles’s win underscores the point that the Greens’ encroachment into inner-city and bohemian enclaves is continuing to gather pace, posing a serious long-term threat to what had traditionally been Labor’s strongholds.

A number of seats in Sydney and Melbourne are likely to fall when the tide goes out on the ageing state Labor governments, which seems particularly imminent in the case of New South Wales.

As I said, prison reform is not a hot issue. But with more media exposure, and possibly a campaign through GetUp!, it could become so, and the NSW Labor could lose even more support from those of us who want to vote for a socially progressive party.

Perhaps the Stateline report will force the NSW Government to act. Philippa McDonald reported:

. . .the Corrective Services Minister is now under intense pressure to overhaul the treatment of vulnerable prisoners and the way his department conducts its investigations.

And Quentin Dempster concluded:

And last night, the NSW Government promised to ensure all government agencies respond to coronial recommendations in the future. Under new guidelines, government departments like Corrective Services will have to act within six months. Victoria recently introduced legislation to
make that happen. Despite numerous requests from Stateline over the past week, the Corrective Services Minister, the Attorney-General and the Corrective Services commissioner all declined to be interviewed about the Shipley case

The Corrective Services Minister, may I remind you again, is former NSW unions boss John Robertson, who brought the NSW Government to its knees when he helped organise a hooting, howling, jeering mob to shout down the then NSW Treasurer over plans to privatise electricity generation.

The images of Labor policy-making were even more damaging than the "36 faceless men" photo which harmed Labor so badly in the 1963 Federal elections.

After his having brought NSW Labor to its knees, it will be ironic if Robertson now administers the coup de grace with his handling of the prisons portfolio.

The Stateline transcript may be read here. This newspaper report tells of Beale's evidence to the Coroner's Court.


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