Nearly 600 items of contraband including drugs, shivs and mobile phones were found during prison searches

A sharpened toothbrush, shivs and a plastic-wrapped package of drugs were among the items seized at the jail. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
A sharpened toothbrush, shivs and a plastic-wrapped package of drugs were among the items seized at the jail. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Custodial staff seized 25 mobile phones and 45 phone-related items such as chargers, as well as 276 makeshift shivs, weapons and other assorted contraband during searches inside Canberra's jail across the 2020-21 financial year.

During a reporting period marked by the most significant riot in the jail's 13-year history, the number of planned and random searches of detainees and locations within the jail fell from 4234 to 3862, with a total of 587 contraband items located.

This compared with 644 items located in the previous reporting year.

The volume and types of drugs smuggled in was not recorded, although admissions by prisoners in court statements suggested a prevalence of methamphetamine, opioids and cannabis. The peak time for seizures was in December last year, when around 100 various items were found after around 400 location searches within the prison.

Three drug detection dogs have been operating on rotation at the jail and the arrival of a fourth, trained specifically in phone detection, together with a canine team supervisor in mid-2021, was expected to give a significant boost to this capability.

Some of the mobile phones found in the prison during previous searches. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Some of the mobile phones found in the prison during previous searches. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

In budget estimates two months ago, Corrective Services commissioner Ray Johnson said he had hoped to have a new body scanner in place by the end of the 2021-22 financial year, "if not sooner".

Numbers of detainees held within the Alexander Maconochie Centre are not provided on a regular basis and vary throughout the year depending on court throughput.

In June 2021 there were 377 detainees held at the prison, a huge drop from the 452 held 12 months previously. Sentenced prisoners are still mixed with those held on remand, which is in breach of the legislation.

Around one-third of these detainees were prisoners held on remand, or yet to be sentenced. Of those, just over a third identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.

While those full-time (sentenced) prisoners serving less than two years or between two to five years had declined, the latest reporting period saw a huge jump in those serving 20-plus years for very serious offences.

There are now 21 prisoners serving 20-plus years in the prison, almost double the number from 12 months previously. Included among these are murderers, serious sex offenders and drug traffickers. Five others are serving life sentences.

Community corrections orders fell in number, from an average of 819 to 713.

At the end of June this year there were 98 people serving intensive corrections orders (ICOs) as an alternative to full-time imprisonment, allowing inmates to serve their sentence out in the community with supervision and other restraints ordered by the courts, such as curfews and regular drug-testing. This was up from 88 the previous year.

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The completion of community service work was at a low 44 per cent, with 56 per cent of court orders breached by the participants.

The COVID pandemic prevented support workers from entering the jail due to the risk of infection spreading inside, meaning many programs to help inmates with issues such as anger management, and alcohol and drug abuse, had to be suspended for lengthy periods.

With so many women inside the prison previously caught up in abusive or dysfunctional relationships during the last financial year, Corrections started up a domestic and family violence awareness workshop which "gathered a lot of interest throughout the year and has been added to the ongoing compendium of program for this area".

Another new program was construction work for women run by Victorian company Foresite Training, run out of the jail's Special Care Centre where all the female inmates were held up until a few months ago.

Built by the women in the 10-week program were "buddy benches" and when complete, these benches would be donated to five schools across the ACT.

The numbers of detainees engaged in work programs within the jail remained static, with just over one-third engaged in tasks such as gardening and grounds maintenance, catering, baking, linen repair and repurposing, recycling and metal work.

Much of the metalwork involved reinforcing the stainless steel toilets regularly vandalised in the 24-hour Crisis Support and building mail boxes for the detainee areas.

This story Mobile phones, drugs still leaking into maximum security prison first appeared on The Canberra Times.