'We studied the area to get an idea of the devastation: staff toilets smashed, the office area flattened with no resemblance to what had been there. Water all over the floor. Live wires sparking. All food supplies from the pantry emptied over the floor.
'Staff personal details graffitied on the walls with threats for payback. Human faeces. Every single pane of glass broken. Communal TVs smashed. Wet towels flung over observation cameras. Cell doors cut off their hinges, lying on the floor. The smell of capsicum spray lingering in the air, making us sneeze, irritating us.'
This was the scene that confronted Leesa O'Brien when she and her colleagues entered B Block at the Metropolitan Remand Centre (MRC) in June 2015 following a riot by prisoners.
After working a day shift from 6.30am until 3.30pm, the Langi Kal Kal staff were sent to MRC, arriving at 10pm. At the time of their arrival, the Victoria Police Riot Squad, Corrections Victoria emergency response group, the Security and Emergency Services Group (SESG, the prison dog squad), along with other units, were still returning prisoners into a lockdown.
"We were told to watch our backs, as some areas were still to be searched and it was known the prisoners had weapons," Ms O'Brien says.
"We had no weapons. No-one in the group had a torch or anything to fight them off with."
The group decided to conduct a head count of the prisoners trying to account for numbers. Patrolling the corridors, they found some of the cells were in darkness as lights had obviously been smashed, as were hall lights.
It was a nightmarish situation. Cell observation windows had been shattered, and prisoners swung their arms out, trying to intimidate the guards. Doors had been removed, making some cells useless. Screams of abuse echoed through the MRC. One count was taken, but the officers couldn't be sure if it was correct. Zones were swapped and another was done, but there was still no confirmation of whether all the prisoners were secured.
"There was a lot of radio traffic and a lot of confusion," says Ms O'Brien.
'"There were a couple of fires still burning out the front of our unit, giving off a toxic smell. ERG and SESG would come in to get their breath and reset, warning us that prisoners were still at large. The front door of the unit had been flattened, so there was no security."
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During the aftermath of the riot, Ms O'Brien says, mainstream prisoners had to be accommodated in the cells of protected prisoners - two groups that cannot be mixed. This gave mainstream prisoners access to the personal effects of protected prisoners.
"(They were) screaming they knew where their families lived, what they looked like, so they could say goodbye to them, they'd arranged to have them killed," she says.
After returning to Langi Kal Kal, Leesa O'Brien reflected on what had happened at the MRC, and how easily the situation might have gone wrong. She became anxious, feeling that Corrections Victoria had used staff without real concern for their safety.
"I'm the opposite person to who I was before that riot," she says.
"I used to be a very social person; now I'm anxious in a crowd, even at a family event, if I'm surrounded by people. I suffer anxiety attacks; I'm very suspicious and untrusting of people. I'm always second-guessing people because of the toxic environment we worked in."
At the same time, Leesa's 18-year-old daughter Hannah, who worked at Langi Kal Kal as a justice officer, was being harassed by older male staff. The distress and damage being caused to Hannah obviously had an effect on her mother, but she found senior managers at Langi Kal Kal were also using the case to explain Leesa's mental condition, diminishing the severity of the MRC experience.
When her Workcover case was investigated, she suffered the indignity of hearing her managers saying, 'No, we don't believe she's received an injury; she's just unhappy at the way her daughter has been treated.'
"They never once asked me if I was OK after the riots. They just assumed they knew what was wrong, that it was about Hannah.
Staff personal details graffitied on the walls with threats for payback. Human faeces. Every single pane of glass broken. Communal TVs smashed. Wet towels flung over observation cameras. Cell doors cut off their hinges, lying on the floor. The smell of capsicum spray lingering in the air, making us sneeze, irritating us.Leesa O'Brien
"Even though I went to court for my WorkCover case and won, I haven't really won," she says.
"All I really won was I proved I was injured while I was at work. The real winners were the lawyers. I still have mental scars from my work injuries, and from being torn apart on the stand in court. They nearly broke me."
Leesa O'Brien also witnessed a report about one prisoner striking another in the head with a cricket bat being altered to prevent an 'incident' being counted against the prison; another manager told her, 'You women all want equal opportunities but you're scared to walk around in the dark,' after she raised security issues over single-person patrols on night shifts.
"You knew what you were in for when you signed up for the job," she was told.
She resigned from Corrections Victoria in August 2018.
The Courier acknowledges that the majority of staff working in our prisons, male and female, do an outstanding job in some of the most fraught situations imaginable. They are confronted daily with the extremes of human behaviour, and with offenders who have committed atrocious crimes. The staff of our prisons deserve a workplace that supports them fully and makes no allowance for bullying, harassment, or any form of sexual abuse.
- Lifeline: 13 11 14; Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
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