YOUTH justice workers at a troubled Victorian youth prison are risking their lives every time they go to work, according to a whistle-blower.
Alan*, a youth justice worker at Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre, spoke exclusively to the Riverine Herald after an increase in assaults from violent inmates towards staff.
It comes after two more attacks on staff members and attempted escapes at the centre on Wednesday night.
A 28-year-old man suffered upper body injuries after being attacked by an inmate about 6pm on Wednesday.
Alan said the staff member was stomped on the head in an attempt to steal his keys.
"There was an attempted escape as well with an inmate trying to steal a female staff member's keys," the Goulburn Valley man said.
"Staff have now stopped work and are dealing with WorkSafe and the union."
A Community and Public Sector Union Victoria spokesperson said the male staff member had only been there for three weeks when he was punched and stomped on the head by two teenagers before having his keys and swipe card taken.
"They escaped the unit, got up on to a shipping container and over the fence to another yard," he said.
He said both boys were capsicum sprayed by SESG.
The spokesperson said about the same time in Monash B, two other boys attempted to take down a female staff to take her keys and swipe card but failed due to the early response by SERT and SESG.
"She has been taken home. She's not injured but traumatised nonetheless," he said.
Every day I walk into work, I always wonder ‘what am I walking into?’ or ‘what’s happened, has anyone been hurt?'” he said.
Alan said last year, Malmsbury and its sister centre Parkville had 130 assaults on staff in 100 days.
“We were averaging more than one assault on staff a day,” he said.
“Everyone feels unsafe. There’s not one staff member who feels safe. The only reason I go to work every day is because of my workmates.
“What tipped me over the edge was one of my friends got bashed and kicked while on the ground the other month. He was spat in the face and he was punched from behind to the ground and they kicked and punched him when he was on the ground.”
Recent attacks have included an attack on a female prison officer in February, while last year a staff member was bashed with a cricket bat, and about 100 medical blades were stolen in July.
“A box of scalpels got stolen from the clinic and was distributed among the prisoners,” Alan said.
“These are rapists and paedophiles, people who do car-jackings to assaults. They’re not in there because they’re good boys, they’re in there because they’ve been involved in a string of crimes or they’ve actually committed a heinous crime like a rape or a murder.”
After a code aqua was called and the centre was shut down, all but 12 podiatry scalpels were found.
“There’s still 12 missing and we still continue to work with these young people,” Alan said.
Alan said despite the risk youth justice workers faced every day, they wore no protective gear.
“I get a duress alarm and a radio and that’s it. We are at risk every day,” he said.
“We try to protect ourselves as best we can with no equipment.”
After a walk-off last year due to health and safety issues, Alan said nothing had changed.
“We’re thinking of having another walk-off due to the conditions,” he said.
And while Alan hasn’t been assaulted himself, he’s witnessed many.
“I’ve easily seen half a dozen assaults on staff who I consider friends,” he said.
“Although I haven’t been assaulted, mentally I got to a point where I couldn’t go to work. I had to deal with some mental issues due to the stress.
“A lot of our staff have mental health issues and are very scared.
“About 25 per cent of our injuries are mental health, so we have a lot of staff with anxiety, depression; people turn to alcohol just to cope. We’ve had staff rock up to work and burst into tears and walk straight out. There’s quite a lot of vicarious trauma happening, so a build-up of traumas gets to a tipping point where people can’t cope.
“We can replace our entire workforce in Malmsbury with the people who are off on WorkCover.”
With 20 to 25 staff going through induction each time, Alan said half would resign within six months.
“New staff start every month and most come in all bright-eyed and think they’re going to make a difference, and within six months they realise they’re just there to play a security role,” he said.
When Alan first started, he also thought he could make a difference and offer guidance and lead the inmates on the right path.
“I’ve come to the realisation that I don’t make a difference,” he said.
“I thought I could be some sort of mentor when I first started; coming from different roles that I’ve had and never been involved in any criminal stuff, so I thought I could point out that there’s a different life to being a criminal.”
Union in talks with government
The number of staff assaulted at Malmsbury and Parkville centres has more than doubled in three years, from 58 in 2016-17 to 130 in the past financial year.
The union spokesperson said young inmates had become increasingly hardened and more difficult to manage in recent years.
“It’s fair to say there is some form of standover, yelling and damage of infrastructure on a daily basis,” he said.
“There is no real way of separating known offenders who want to cause problems, and that causes assaults; and when staff become involved they’re hurt while trying to restrain them — or they are targeted as a result of payback.
“Out-of-control youth are not interested in responding to any sense of authority.
“It’s made the sites very ugly and has increased absenteeism and failure to fill rosters.”
The spokesperson said the union had been concerned with staff-to-inmate ratios for some time and was in talks with the Department of Justice over health and safety issues.
“We’ve been battling since the 2011 budget cuts where they got rid of experienced staff and we’ve been playing catch-up ever since.”
He said the union was pushing for re-professionalism and training of workers.
“We have been in negotiations with the government for a long time over staff wellbeing … improving staff levels and pay and conditions,” he said.
“We remain hopeful.”
Youth justice workers are also working without an EBA after their most recent one expired in December.
Industrial Relations Victoria, on behalf of the Victorian Government, is working with the CPSU to finalise negotiations for a new EBA to cover the whole of the Victorian Public Service.
“A range of measures to improve safety and security have been implemented, including the creation of a dedicated health and wellbeing team and program to support staff,” a Department of Justice and Community Safety spokesperson said.
“The placements of young people in youth justice facilities is constantly monitored and reviewed. Changes are made when necessary and if an assessment finds that their safety, or the safety of staff, has changed.
“The Victorian Government has invested $1.2 billion to overhaul the youth justice system, including delivering more and better trained and equipped staff, and conducting safety and security upgrades of infrastructure at youth justice centres.”
The spokesperson said an Intensive Intervention Unit was being established at Parkville to provide the space and capability to appropriately manage young people who posed a high risk of violence.
A new youth justice facility under construction in Wyndham is expected to allow for improved management of young people in custody.