State unit accused of spying on parolees

Patrick Wright and Wendy Collis
Sydney Morning Herald, August 9, 2010

A SECRETIVE compliance group established by the NSW Department of Corrective Services has been accused of harassing and spying on thousands of prison parolees, while detecting few breaches of parole conditions.

Lawyers and human rights advocates have attacked the Community Compliance Group for demanding on-the-spot urine tests and strip searches from parolees, as well as listening to private phone calls.

Recently released prisoners are subjected to surprise visits at any time from the unit, which was set up in 2007. The unit runs parallel to the NSW Probation and Parole Service but separately monitors parolees and offenders in the community.

The group is empowered to visit, unannounced, parolees at their home or work, at any hour of the day, demand on-the-spot breath, blood and urine tests, impose curfews, watch parolees without talking to them, track them via GPS, monitor telephones and conduct psychological profiling.

A former prisoner turned lawyer and prisoner advocate, Kat Armstrong, said the group’s ”excessive” methods were upsetting parolees.

She said one parolee had an extended panic attack after she was visited by the group’s officers.

“They would come to her house [and] she would be urine-tested in her own bathroom,” Ms Armstrong said. ”She would be made to strip … to show she wasn’t concealing anything, and [made to] put her hands on the wall while she then did a urine test for the CCG officer.

“She was asked questions about the furnishings in her house, like how could she possibly afford to have these nice blinds on her windows.”

One parolee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution by Corrective Services, said parole officers had told him their role was to ”catch you out, not to assist you”.

“You’re trying to reintegrate into society … you’re having a meal with friends, you’ve got someone around who doesn’t know about your background and these guys … rock into your house and demand to see you,” he said.

In 2008-09, the group conducted 14,000 parolee visits but detected only 70 breaches of parole conditions, which led to 40 parolees returning to custody. It performed 25,000 unannounced home visits in 2009-10, according to Corrective Services.

The senior solicitor with the NSW Prisoners Legal Service, Will Hutchins, said the group’s role had been significantly expanded. “When it initially started it seemed to be a very small group and it seemed to be just applying to serious offenders and sex offenders,” he said. “But it seems it’s gone well beyond that.”

The group supervises all parolees subject to electronic surveillance, including those under drug-related court orders and those on day or weekend leave.

It can also test parolees subject to good behaviour bonds for drugs and alcohol. In 2007, the NSW Legislative Review Committee said this “appears to be excessive punishment and unduly trespasses personal rights and liberties”.

Corrective Services denied all allegations of aggressive conduct by the group. In a statement to the Herald, it said it made “no apologies” for the group’s operations.

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