The ugly side of ‘cell therapy’ in NSW

Alleged abuse at NSW prisons has been the focus of the latest ICAC inquiry in Sydney.Light is being shone on questionable NSW prison guard culture by a corruption inquiry that’s exposed details of cell shakedowns and alleged inmate abuse.

So-called “cell therapy” is used to punish belligerent inmates, according to former guards who’ve admitted superiors direct them to trash cells merely to “show a presence”.

At the heart of a NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption hearing, which began in Sydney this week, lies the alleged February 2014 bashing of an inmate at the Lithgow Correctional Centre.

Officers are accused of lying in incident in reports, deleting CCTV footage and planting drugs.

The probe offers a rare glimpse into those who keep NSW criminals locked up and the problems experienced in their workplaces.

Counsel assisting the inquiry Sam Duggan says systemic corruption is a consideration.

“Importantly, it should not be assumed that the events which unfolded at Lithgow are necessarily isolated,” he told Monday’s hearing.

“They are not.”

Questions were raised about why specially-trained guards were ordered into the inmate’s cell in the first place, with suggestions either he or his cellmate were abusive on an intercom when complaining of having no television.

Former officer Terrence Walker was the first ICAC witness asked about “cell therapy”.

“It can (range from) yelling abuse to completely trashing the cell and sometimes further,” he explained.

By “further”, that could mean physical force, before revealing potential targets.

“Belligerent inmates, known troublemakers, ones that abuse staff … it’s purely to teach them a lesson.”

His colleague Elliot Duncan admitted it wasn’t uncommon to be directed by superiors to dish out “cell therapy”.

“My understanding of that is to show a presence more than anything,” Mr Duncan testified.

“(To) put them in their place.”

The inquiry has also raised questions about trust issues between guards, with officers suspected of having reported inappropriate conduct being labelled as “dogs”.

Officer Wesley Duffy claims he was excluded from the reporting process following the alleged bashing because his “heavy-handed” colleagues knew he would want to be honest.

Perhaps tellingly, Mr Duffy had never heard of cell therapy and said he wasn’t the only one in Lithgow who considered the tactics of colleagues inappropriate.

Already two of the implicated officers have been “relieved from duty”, including one who went on to become one of the most senior departmental officials.

A Corrective Services NSW spokeswoman said there were “strict formal procedures” around the use of force and the idea of cell therapy was “completely unacceptable”.

“(The department) actively investigates any suspicion that those procedures have been breached,” she said in a statement to AAP.

Disciplinary measures can include referral to police, fines, dismissal and imprisonment.

Few would argue with Mr Duggan’s suggestion correctional staff have a “difficult and probably thankless task” that involves power over inmates.

With that power comes responsibility, he added.

That “also requires the eradication of any culture which covers up situations where Corrective staff have overstepped the mark”.

But he said the “vast number” of staff perform their functions honestly.

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