A game of hangman played on a whiteboard in a staff-only area of Canberra’s prison featuring the name of an Indigenous detainee has been labelled “extremely disappointing” by the Corrective Services Commissioner.
- A hangman game played by staff using an inmate’s name was discovered in 2018
- The case was settled in the ACT Administrative and Civil Tribunal last week
- The Commissioner has issued an apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander detainees
The incident, which occurred at the Alexander Maconochie Centre in 2018, was taken to the Human Rights Commission by a fellow Indigenous detainee after he overheard staff talking about the image, which also featured a boat with the people onboard “celebrating as indicated by the word ‘yay’ while they looked at the hanging man”.
The complainant’s lawyers, from Canberra Community Law, told the ABC that the complainant had “suffered significant emotional and psychological harm as a result” of the incident.
“The reference to the boat cuts deeply given the history of this country and what has happened to our people since colonisation,” he said.
“It is hard for me to articulate just how terrible the impact of this blatant hate and racism has been on me.
“The realisation that the people entrusted with our care think and behave in this way is frightening.”
Matter referred to ACAT
After efforts between the prison and the detainee to reach an agreement broke down, the matter was referred to the ACT Administrative and Civil Tribunal (ACAT).
ACAT and the detainee reached a settlement last week, and the process has reportedly prompted “significant reform” within ACT Corrective Services (ACTCS) to “ensure that our operations are focused on maximising opportunities for offenders to positively change their lives”.
In a statement on Wednesday, the ACTCS Commissioner Jon Peach apologised for the behaviour of his staff.
“This type of behaviour is abhorrent and reflects badly on all those staff that do the right thing every day,” he said.
“There is no place for it within ACTCS and it will not be tolerated.
The tribunal ordered the hangman image be accompanied by this statement, which the parties agreed to on March 4, 2020.
“Any staff member who cannot meet these basic expectations, should rethink their career.”
Mr Peach also issued a separate apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander detainees, given the drawing was of an Indigenous prisoner, and the complainant was also Indigenous.
“I acknowledge that this incident is particularly distressing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander detainees and for this I further offer my sincere apology,” Mr Peach said.
“As a society it is our duty to call out this behaviour when it happens and to convey our apology to those who are directly affected by the reckless actions of others.”
However, Mr Peach confirmed to the ABC that the detainee who was the subject of the hangman drawing still does not, to this day, know it was about him.
In response to the Commissioner’s statement, Canberra Community Lawyers said that “too often stories involving Aboriginal People silence the voices of the Aboriginal victims directly affected. The statement from the Commissioner is yet one more example of that.
“The image is much more than a game of hangman. It represents the persistent racism that plagues our systems.
“Our client is pleased to have received a robust apology through the litigation process, but it is disappointing that the ACT Corrective Services has subsequently minimised the serious nature of the image.”
Rattenbury also condemns the drawing
Corrective Services Commissioner Jon Peach described the drawing as ‘abhorrent’. (ABC News)
Following the ACAT settlement, Mr Peach told the ABC his team had no way of identifying who did the drawing and so had instead taken a “systemic” approach to the response, including more cultural awareness training.
Mr Peach also said he was disappointed the “despicable” actions of one staff member “undermined the professionalism and reputation of ACTCS and my staff”.
“The vast majority of my staff are highly dedicated and professional,” he said.
“It is my expectation that ACTCS employees act with integrity, decency and respect at all times.”
Minister for Corrections and Justice Health Shane Rattenbury echoed the Commissioner’s condemnation of the drawing.
“I am personally appalled by this incident,” he said.
“It is deeply regrettable and frankly offensive.”
Hole in fence findings
The Corrections Minister described the game as “offensive”. (ABC News: Ian Cutmore)
Today the Commissioner also released the review into an incident in November 2019, when a hole in the perimeter fence at Canberra’s jail was discovered.
It found the hole went undetected for a day because of changes to the perimeter checks by staff that did not meet established procedures.
But it did note that “ACTCS responded appropriately in securing the centre and following established emergency management protocols” once the hole was detected.
“I am pleased that the review has confirmed our security procedures are appropriate,” Mr Peach said.
“However it is disappointing that potential human error led to the delay in identification of this breach for a day.
“There is no excuse for those systems not to have worked in this instance.”
Mr Peach said there had been no similar breaches of the perimeter since November.
A formal investigation is still ongoing into the alleged human error that led to the delay.