Activist Rights

Prisons and lock-up

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Many activists, whether through design or just bad luck, find themselves in the mainstream prison system.

Activism and protest can continue whilst inside prison, but it does so within a very different set of circumstances and alongside a community whose members already engage in their own acts of resistance and survival. The prison world is akin to a totalitarian society of almost absolute control by one group of people over another. It can be incredibly difficult to maintain your own sense of power or even self-worth in this environment. Support from others inside and outside becomes extremely important whilst in prison.

Resources and contacts

Information on Victoria’s prisons can be found at the Department of Justice.

The administration of prisons is set out in the Corrections Act 1986.

VACRO is the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders.

 

VACRO is a community based non-denominational organisation, with qualified workers who understand the prison system and the needs of families. It offers support and information to prisoner, ex-prisoners and families of prisoners. Family Liaison Workers from VACRO attend the Melbourne Remand Centre and the Metropolitan Reception Prison.

Staying Healthy

Food

The lock-up or jail is not going to give you regular vitamins, herbs or homeopathic medicine. If you have glucose, lactose or gluten intolerance or severe food allergies, get a doctor’s letter (but don’t expect the jail kitchen staff to be able to follow directions).

You have a legal right to kosher food if you’re Jewish and to a non-pork diet if you’re Muslim. Vegetarians are generally told: “Just don’t eat the meat.”

Vegans, fruitarians and macrobiotics are usually out of luck. Supporters and lawyers cannot bring in food. The best advice is to eat well before the action and do your best to manage with the regular jail food.

Medical conditions and methadone

If you have a potentially dangerous medical condition (asthma, diabetes, seizures), wear a medic-alert bracelet. This will make the police and jail staff take you much more seriously if you start to have problems.

People on prescribed methadone programs should be allowed to continue their treatment if they are in police custody for more than 24 hours. Carry the prescription form with you and ask police for a custodial methadone prescription. They should arrange for a pharmacist to deliver the dose.

The only way to ensure that you will receive medication while in jail is to bring a recently-dated doctor’s letter explaining your requirements. Make four copies of the doctor’s letter. Keep two copies of this letter on your person (one to keep and one to give to the jail medical staff), leave the third copy with your affinity group supporters, and leave the fourth copy with your attorney or other arrest support. (The point of distributing all these copies is to facilitate your supporters’ efforts to help you if the jail staff takes your letters away and loses them.)

Once you’re in jail, the jail’s medical staff should supply you with your regular prescription medications. Usually jail staff dispense only medications from their own infirmary, since they won’t trust that what you brought in is the real thing. Sometimes the jail’s medical staff try to substitute a similar medication for what you normally use. If this is a problem, have your doctor specify no substitutions in the letter. Often there is a big lag of 24 hours or more between getting arrested and first receiving regular doses of medication.

Remember that there is no assurance that police or jail personnel will be responsive to your medical condition.

Note: You do not have to tell the police or jail guards whether you’re HIV positive or have AIDS. However, this is likely to be one of the questions you will be asked on entering the system.

Also see Prisons & lock-up

Medical attention

In a police lock-up or a prison, always call for medical attention if you have any injury.

It is vitally important that you have any injury you receive in the process of, or after, arrest recorded by a doctor or nurse. This may be of great significance in any future hearing. Many issues in court come down to a police officer’s word against a defendant if there is nothing else, magistrates very regularly accept the police officer’s word. Medical evidence is one important way in which you can get support for your account of what happened.

Don’t undersell your injuries, or ignore them, as you might if not arrested. Small scratches and bruises should all be pointed out and recorded. This is not because you need them medically treated, but because of their potential significance as evidence in court. You may also need to call the doctor or nurse to give evidence of their having recorded your injuries they can be subpoenaed (ordered by the court, at your request) to give evidence.

See Complaints against police

Evidence of police violence can cause police accounts of admissions to be rejected in court as involuntary.

Prison amenities

There are several prison amenities you should immediately make use of: phone calls, visits and legal visits, letters, medical care, education and activities, and reading material.

The amenities in Australian prisons are generally called privileges as, in reality, prisoners have very few legally enforceable rights. In Victoria, however, unlike other jurisdictions, certain rights are enshrined in legislation ( see section 47 Corrections Act 1986 (Vic)).

As human and social beings prisoners also retain most of their democratic rights. Furthermore, prisoners can directly enforce their democratic rights by insistence on them, by solidarity, by appeals to outside groups and to official bodies. These pressures work in the case of rights which are widely recognised and which are contained in section 47 of theCorrections Act 1986 (Vic), such as the rights to fresh air, proper food, decent health care, to avenues of complaint, access to lawyers, visits from friends, access to a library and education facilities, reasonable communications facilities and so on.

In practice, there are a number of prison amenities (other than food, clothing and a bed) you should immediately become familiar with and make use of. The most important of these are:

Phone calls

Prisoners at all Victorian prisons can make phone calls, usually one or two a week, not counting calls to lawyers. Each jail has a different set-up for booking calls. The use of phones is monitored by a Prisoner Telephone Control System, state-wide and across all security classifications. The monitoring system restricts a prisoner to calling five phone numbers, all of which must be registered and approved by the prison Governor. Victoria Legal Aid provides a telephone for the use of prisoners at the Melbourne Custody Centre. The phone is available for use free of charge to prisoners and is located in the records area. The phone is a direct link to the Prison Advice Service.

Visits & legal visits

Generally speaking remand (unconvicted) prisoners have no different rights to convicted prisoners. However they are allowed more visits than those provided to convicted prisoners. Remand prisoners at the Melbourne Custody Centre are allowed box visits each day and a contact visit (where you can touch your visitor) once a week. The Metropolitan Assessment Prison allows one box visit and one contact visit a week. Prisoners need to provide prison authorities with a list of the names and addresses of the people who will be visiting them. These practices change regularly, so it is advisable to check by phoning the prison if you are planning to visit someone.

Visitors can’t legally (by prison rules) give you food, money or other things. Visitors who break these rules can be banned from future visits. Clothing, money and gifts can be placed in a person’s property, however it is wise to check with the particular prison as to what items and what amount of money is permitted. Visits may be from 30 minutes to three hours long. Again, each prison has a different set-up. There is no limit to the number of legal visits you can have, within visiting hours. If you’re visiting a friend who is a prisoner, it’s often wise to check by phone if your friend is actually in the prison and that you are on their visit list. If you make an effort to travel to a jail, particularly a country jail, it can be very frustrating to discover that your inmate friend has been moved elsewhere or that you are unable to see them because your name has not been included on their list.

Letters

The sending and receiving of letters is a right contained in the Corrections Act 1986 (Vic): see section 47(1)(m) & (n)). The Act explains that letters are not to be censored except where the prison governor considers prison security is threatened. All incoming mail is opened to check for contraband (drugs, money, etc).

Medical care

Every day there are usually morning and afternoon clinic periods when you can get medical attention from a nurse. You need to book in to see a doctor, dentist or specialist. Prisoners have the right to make a request for medical care and attention at any time (see Corrections Act 1986 (Vic) section 47(1)(f)). Prisoners are also entitled to pay for and obtain a private medial practitioner, physiotherapist or chiropractor of their choice.

Education & activities

Every jail has some sort of education centre, with limited facilities. There will also be an activities centre, with some sports facilities and possibly access to a sports ground. Check these facilities out and make use of them.

Reading material

The one thing you can have sent in to you (other than money, which is kept for you in an account) is reading material. Although there are restrictions on how many books and magazines you can keep in your cell, you can share them around or return them to the property that is held for you at reception near the prison gate. So ask friends to send you, or leave at the gate, books or magazines. Newspapers, however, must be ordered for an entire month. Occasionally some reading material is withheld by the jailers have your outside friends inform you what they’ve sent, and if it is withheld, fight to get it back.

Money & buy-ups

Each week you can use your private money, from an account held for you by the jail, to order some food, toiletries and other items that are available on the jail’s buy up. There are also activities buy-ups where you can order such things as sports shoes. Items available vary from jail to jail.

Television & radios

Victorian prisoners can purchase these (they can’t be left at the gate drug rationale) on activities buy-ups, where you place an order a week in advance with the activities officer, and he or she uses the money in your account to buy these and other things such as sports shoes.

Protection

The segregated protection sections of every jail are for those who require protection for a variety of reasons. This could be either because they are young and unsure of the main jail, or because they fall within one of the two categories of people who aren’t tolerated in prison culture: child molesters and informers.

Segregation

Some prisoners are also segregated for punishment, management reasons or for medical supervision. The Corrections Act 1986 (Vic) and the Corrections Regulations 1998 (Vic) provide the legal basis for segregation of prisoners. The practices and conditions of segregation are also outlined in Director-General’s Rules. The length of separation varies. Separation for punishment can be for up to 30 days. When the prison governor orders the separation of a prisoner a separation order must be completed and a copy provided to the prisoner.

Ombudsman

Under the Ombudsman Act 1973 (Vic) and section 47(1)(j) of the Corrections Act 1986 (Vic), a prisoner has the right to correspond with the Ombudsman setting out his or her complaints. If you can’t sort out a problem at a local level, or if your problem is about amenities which affect other prisoners, consider making a written complaint to the Ombudsman. If the Ombudsman finds a complaint to be justified, a remedial course of action is recommended to the prison authorities.

Official visitor

Each prison has an official visitor appointed under the Corrections Act 1986 (Vic). 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. Prisoners can request to see the official visitor and the prison governor is required to bring to the attention of the official visitor the names of prisoners and officers who have requested to see the official visitor.

Civil proceedings

You can take out civil legal proceedings as a prisoner; however, there are a number of obstacles placed in the way of prisoners, especially when it comes to actions against jailers. Also, those convicted of serious offences will have trouble suing for defamation, as their reputations are said to be tainted. Prisoners have access to the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal and to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

Voting

You can vote as a prisoner. However voting rights are legally denied to those convicted and jailed for offences where the maximum term of imprisonment is more than 5 years. The position for prisoner appellants (those convicted but waiting on appeal) is still untested, but while the matter is not clarified, the Australian Electoral Office has allowed some appellants to vote.

Prison discipline

There are procedures under the Corrections Act 1986 (Vic) for allegations of various types of misconduct by prisoners to be heard and punished by either the disciplinary officer or the prison governor if a prisoner is charged with a prison offence. No legal representative is able to attend the governor’s hearing, however the prisoner is entitled to have another prisoner present. The decision of the governor may be reviewed if, within 30 days after the giving of notification of the decision or the reasons for the decision (whichever is the later), application is made under the Administrative Law Act 1978 (Vic), or alternatively, to the Supreme Court, for judicial review of the governor’s decision, based on general principles of administrative law.

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