Overcrowding in Victoria’s police cells has reached record levels, with almost four times the recommended number of prisoners being held in custody.
The crisis led to a number of people being turned away from the Melbourne Custody Centre this morning, despite having cases listed in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court.
At least three committal hearings had to be adjourned or delayed because Corrections Victoria staff had not transported the accused people to court from the Melbourne Remand Centre.
Several prisoners due to appear at administrative hearings were also not brought in, despite warrants ordering them to appear.
Deputy Chief Magistrate Jelena Popovic described the situation as ‘intolerable.’
“It’s just not good enough to say we can’t accommodate people,” Ms Popovic said.
She said members of the alleged victim’s family were in court and were distressed that the hearing had been unable to start.
Another frustrated magistrate, Charlie Rozencwajg, asked a defence lawyer whose client had also not been transported whether he’d considered going to the Supreme Court to seek a writ of habeas corpus, to force authorities to bring the accused man to court.
“Why isn’t anybody doing it?” Mr Rozencwajg said.
A police officer from the Prisoner Management Unit, Snr Sgt Darryl Macintire, was called into court to explain the situation to Magistrate Popovic, and said the underground holding facility was full.
“We’re just backed up and that’s the plain and simple fact,” Snr Sgt Macintire said. “Victoria Police aren’t in a position to take any more prisoners in the custody centre.”
He said there was a limited number of places available each day, and if that figure was exceeded, prisoners could not be brought to court, for safety reasons.
He said at 10am this morning there were 381 prisoners being held in police cells across Victoria, which the Police Association believes is a record high.
The Office of Corrections target for prisoners being held in police cells is 100.
He said 89 people were being held today in the Melbourne Custody Centre. The limit stated on the operator’s website is 67 prisoners.
The court was told the only available spaces within Victoria were five beds at the Wodonga Police Station, but added it would be impractical to transport people so far from Melbourne.
The senior sergeant said the problem arose because the custody centre was not for the sole use of the Magistrates’ Court, but was gazetted as a police jail. This meant a number of prisoners serving sentences were being held there, rather than being sent to prisons that had also reached capacity.
He said there were 184 people in the state’s police cells serving sentences longer than ten days, 133 people serving longer than 14 days, and 37 criminals who had been arrested for breaching parole.
A spokesperson for Corrections Victoria acknowledged overcrowding was an ongoing problem, and said staff were working with police and court officials to address the crisis.
He said as of tomorrow, empty cells in the County Court would be used to house excess prisoners from the Magistrates’ Court.
Scheduling sittings on weekends has also been floated as a solution for easing the strain on the system.