Nurses hit by secret jail eviction

Sudden mass transfer flouts directives on consultation.

During the night of March 15, nurses at four NSW jails became unwitting participants in a secret operation to advance the State Government’s plan to privatise prisons.

Shortly before 11pm, two nurses on duty at Cessnock jail received an extraordinary instruction: Collect and pack all records for 110 patients within the next hour and a half.

While the nurses raced to locate, sort and pack files so nothing vital would be missed, inmates were loaded into vans, 20 at a time, for immediate transfer to three other jails.

All but a handful were driven to the John Maroney Correctional Centre at Windsor, where a lone receiving nurse struggled to get on top of paperwork and assess which of the new arrivals would need medication and treatment.

The clandestine operation was designed to prevent a picket line or similar protest at Cessnock by prison officers opposed to privatisation of Cessnock and Parklea jails.

The sudden transfer caused distress to staff and patients who did not get the care they were entitled to, said John Kemp RN and NSWNA Branch Secretary at Cessnock jail.

‘While trying to get the paperwork together nurses had to attend to a patient with a heart condition who complained of severe chest pains, and get him transferred to the local hospital,’ John said.

‘We keep files in several areas and there are several medication folders, and some were missed because of pressure to get everything packed up quickly.

‘And we couldn’t forward missing files and treatment charts for a couple of days because we weren’t told where patients had been sent to.

‘We had guys on opiate treatment programs who turned up at a new jail with one nurse on duty and no methadone or buprenorphine.

‘Some patients who stayed at Cessnock had their files sent to Sydney by mistake. I had methadone clients used to getting dosed at 7am who weren’t dosed until after lunch and had consequently started withdrawing.

‘We try to build a rapport with these guys and when they’re sick like that they’re not in a friendly mood.’

The late-night mass transfer from Cessnock came just 10 days after Industrial Relations Commissioner Elizabeth Bishop directed the Department of Corrective Services to consult with Justice Health on significant workplace changes, including prison transfers, that might impact on the delivery of prison health services.

NSWNA Assistant General Secretary Judith Kiejda said the Union went to the Commission after the department failed to consult with nurses when introducing sudden changes at several jails.

‘This ongoing failure to consult is regularly putting nurses at risk and is a clear breach of occupational health and safety law,’ Judith said.

‘The department seems to think it is a law unto itself.’

Following the Cessnock mass transfer, the Union went back to the Commission, where the department gave undertakings to implement Commissioner Bishop’s earlier directives.

The department also acknowledged ‘the distinct and separate health charter un-der which Justice Health operates’.

Judith said privatisation of prisons would make it even harder to get authorities to abide by occupational health and safety rules.

‘We have enough trouble ensuring nurses’ safety when a government department, answerable to elected representatives, is in charge. What chance will we have when it’s a private operator who hides behind “commercial in confidence”?’

Back in Cessnock, NSWNA members employed by Justice Health have been active in a well-supported community campaign to block privatisation.

‘If the jail is privatised, prison officer numbers will be reduced, with fewer officers to escort patients for treatment within the prison and to the local hospital. That will affect our ability to provide care for our patients,’ John Kemp said.

‘If it affects our patients it’s going to affect the local area, because the work we do in jail is the sort of work people outside the prison system don’t like doing – like getting guys off illegal drugs and getting them healthy again to be released back into the community.’

The spectre of job losses through privatisation comes when Cessnock, recognised as the most disadvantaged local government area in the Hunter region, is already reeling from the loss of 90 jobs at the Bonds clothing factory.

‘There’s very little money in the town – just walk down the main street and see the empty shops. People are packing up and leaving,’ John said.