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Nick McKim versus Tasmanian Prison Officers

The Greens Leader and Corrections Minister, Nick McKim, is in the news again this week being called out as a hypocrite for his past support for Nigel Burch (the whistleblower who felled Deputy Premier Steve Kons several years ago) while asking this week that those responsible for the theft of personal prisoner records be investigated by police.

The bottom line of this issue is that Nick McKim wants to reform the current prison system… while the prison officers’ union representatives claim the proposed reforms will endanger prison officers’ safety. That greater subject can lay fallow – is McKim a hypocrite or not?

A Whistleblower versus a Plain Old Thief

The first point to make is that Nigel Burch was a classic whistleblower who only stood to lose by revealing corruption in the Deputy Premier. I should add that the then Premier, Paul Lennon, and his successor, David Bartlett, are both under investigation by Tasmania’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Integrity Commission. In the classic spirit of whistleblowing, the information was released by Nigel Burch for the wider good of our society (by a person who knew that it would hurt nobody more than himself for revealing it). It was solely through ethical outrage – a key point of whistleblowing.

That should give you a good idea of what whistleblowing legislation is designed to protect – people revealing information for the greater public good.

Enter the disgruntled Tasmanian prison officers in pursuit of their stouche with government over danger in the workplace and McKim’s prison reforms. An as yet unidentified individual or individuals removed private and personal prisoner records and placed them in the public domain to serve their own ends… to prove a union case for a pay rise… a pay rise they stand to benefit from… in the hope of never being revealed.

The first example, Burch, is the whistleblower. The second example, an unnamed prison officer (or officers) have removed private information for personal gain. That is theft by anybody’s definition. It also impinges on the Tasmanian Government’s duty of care of those human beings being held in custody at the Risdon Prison Complex. We should never overlook our responsibility to those human beings nor our internationally recognised obligations to them regardless of their offences. As we wouldn’t condone torturing a rapist we should also abstain from defrocking them beyond the law without natural justice. These men and women are prisoners; these prisoners are men and women.

The Contents of a Prisoner’s File

My experience with the Tasmanian prison system is extensive and my file at one point was over six inches in height. The State Ombudsman, after my complaint about it’s size and how it was being used, ordered that file to be significantly culled by Prison management somewhere around 1994 because most of what entered that file was biased and editorial in nature – random prison officer commentary, parts of private letters out of context… anything anybody who disliked me thought could be useful as a weapon to bring me harm.

That’s the rub… prison files aren’t court records. Prison files contain anything any officer chooses to write about the inmate uncontested… the inmate cannot be notified of these comments because it would endanger the prison officer performing their duties. There is also a rule stating no prison officer can tell a lie or they will be immediately dismissed – so to be charged internally on any defaulter’s court has to result in a finding that the inmate is guilty of the offence. Or the officer has lied. If the officer has lied then the officer must be dismissed.

There is a contingency on more serious charges for a Justice of the Peace to sit on the defaulters court with the power to extent a prisoner’s sentence by several months. This is both rare (once in my knowledge of 15 years at Risdon) and without the rigour of Court Justice.

Any prison officer can write onto any prisoner’s file unproved and overheard commentary, psychiatric assessment (for example, psychopath… and even on the insistence of the States most senior forensic psychiatrist that the unqualified term be removed, the word psychopath has remained on that file).

So, prison files aren’t legally proven facts or standing documents meant for anybody beyond prison management or the parole board. Prison files are the equivalent of your quarterly performance management reports accumulated into one central location and across every job you’ve ever endured. The prison file also contains personal information about relationships, visitors, family details, addresses and phone numbers. Whatever the prison gleans about an inmate goes into that file. Anybody can edit that file. Anybody can contribute to that file.

Performance Management does not belong in the Public Domain

When the Tasmanian Liberals Elise Archer compares Burch’s whistleblowing to the release of these documents into the public domain she dramatically proves to be lacking in an understanding of whistleblowing. How would you feel if every performance management by that prick in your last job… the prick who hated your guts for no other reason than you existed… how would you feel if those performance management reports were public?

Nick McKim is entirely correct as the Corrections Minister to demand the thief (or thieves) of those documents be identified and prosecuted. This, by definition, is not an act of whistleblowing to be protected – this is an act of a union membership stealing internal and harmful files to prove a union case against their employer for a raise in pay and conditions. No more and no less. In other words… a revelation for potential personal and group gain.

The line has been crossed in this instance.

Prisons are a dangerous environment. However, I’m aware of the process of becoming a Tasmanian prison officer – the applicants try very hard to be employed there and wait a long time through interview, physical testing and training. From my memory I recall it being 9 to 12 months from application to hitting the yards. The danger of the situation should not be a surprise to anybody applying to manage our most dangerous, volatile and manipulative citizens. By the same token, it is not our right and not the prison officers’ collective right to drag those personal unsubstantiated collections of garbage into the public domain.

The moment society condones this action then nurses may just as well steal patient records to prove that some patients abuse them verbally and place those records into the public domain. Call centre workers… airlines… all that private information about you would be open to public scrutiny whether you did say those things or they just wrote them into their files through being offended.

Nick McKim has not been a hypocrite in this instance… however, Elise Archer has definitely shown Tasmanian voters her ignorance about the nature, rationale and spirit of whistleblowing.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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