Riot breaks out at Metropolitan Remand Centre on eve of jail smoking ban
VICTORIA’S prisons remain in lockdown this morning following a mass riot at the Melbourne Remand Centre (MRC) over a smoking ban that starts today.
Inmates at the MRC have been moved to other prisons as authorities start repairing cells that were damaged during 15 hours of chaos that started at 12.20pm yesterday.
Minister for Corrections Wade Noonan announced a full investigation into what he called a “dangerous and difficult operation” at the centre in Ravenhall, 25km west of the Melbourne CBD.
Mr Noonan, Corrections Commissioner Jan Shuard and Victoria Police Assistance Commissioner Stephen Leane held a press conference on the incident at 7am.
Mr Noonan confirmed prisoners were hurt during the riot at the maximum-security prison.
The riot was brought under control at 3am.
He said four prisoners, two with dog bites, were in hospital at Port Phillip Prison.
A fifth inmate would require treatment for a broken jaw.
Two staff members were also hurt but their injuries were not a result of direct interaction with inmates, Corrections Victoria said earlier.
Ms Shuard said that the smoking ban would stay, and that all prisons including the MRC would remain in lockdown until managers determined that it was safe to return to normal operations.
“It is probably likely that the smoking ban is at the heart at why the prisoners caused such a disruption but we don’t know that for sure yet,” Ms Shuard said.
Mr Noonan praised the bravery of authorities who helped end the violence.
“I want to ensure the Victorian people there will be a thorough investigation into what caused this riot,” Mr Noonan said.
“These events are unacceptable ... they will not be tolerated by the Government or the Victorian people.”
Police will today begin the massive task of reviewing CCTV and gathering evidence against those reponsible.
Mr Leane said detectives would be teamed up to review the footage from the riot and gather statements from injured prisoners and corrections staff.
“We will continue to do those investigations and hold those who caused the damage and who started the riot and maybe assaulted other people accountable for what they did,” he said.
“We’ve got lots and lots of CCTV to work our way through over the next days and weeks.
“ We will do everything we can in Victoria Police to hold these people to account.
“I think there’s quite a few of them will be thinking that they will be maybe doing some more time that they weren’t planning on.”
Mr Noonan vowed a “thorough” inquiry into how the riot occurred, the response and how to prevent a repeat.
“The events of yesterday are unacceptable. They are unacceptable to the government and they are unacceptable to the Victorian people,” he said.
“This criminal behaviour will not be tolerated.
“We will get to the bottom of this, we will learn the lessons.
“ And we will put in place proper measures to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again.”
Ms Shuard was unable to put a dollar figure on the damage at Ravenhall but assessors were being brought in today.
Prisoner units, workshops, gardens and windows were among areas with the most damage.
“Our task now is recovery - it will be about us repairing that damage and getting that prison back into operation,” Mr Shuard said.
Corrections had no information a riot was imminent nor whether it was specifically planned to occur when prisoners were in the yard exercising.
They made one demand which “wasn’t contemplated” although Ms Shuard wouldn’t provide further detail.
Ms Shuard said corrections had done “an enormous amount” of work leading up to the ban with only 10 to 20 per cent of inmates unable to kick the habit at the time of the riot.
Nicotine replacement therapy, a quit program and addition recreation activities would continue although a special transition dinner planned for yesterday was now “unlikely” to happen.
“We have been working for a long time to put this in place,” she said.
“This is about the long term health and well-being of our staff in the prison system and the people who come into prison.”
Police, paramedics and the SES remain outside the centre this morning.
Up to 60 inmates started the riot, which swelled into hundreds of prisoners breaching a “secure inner perimeter’’ at the MRC.
Staff, guards and visitors were evacuated as the chaos broke out.
Inmates armed themselves with sticks, lit fires and smashed windows while others commandeered tractors and buggies in a tense standoff.
Heavily armed police in riot gear, backed by an armoured blast proof vehicle called the “bear cat’’, moved in at 3.30pm.
Rioting inmates were peppered with tear gas as they breached a control room.
A water cannon was also unleashed.
Some prisoners protected their identity by donning masks with a core group maintaining the rage into the night.
It is understood that members of the Hells Angels and Comancheros are housed at the prison and ripped down fences to reach each other.
Inmates awaiting trials at the centre are believed to include accused killer Sean Price and Comancheros “road captain’’ Thomas Laslo.
The MRC riot triggered a lockdown at the nearby Port Phillip Prison, where a fire was lit in a cell.
Ms Shuard later admitted it was the biggest riot she was aware of.
“It might be to do with the smoking ban that starts (Wednesday),’’ the Corrections Commissioner said yesterday.
Ms Shuard said management for prisoners had been planned for 18-months.
But they had no idea a riot was coming.
Ms Shuard also said she also did not know how prisoners obtained weapons as she promised a full investigation.
“Absolutely, we will thoroughly review how this came about, how we responded to it and what we might need to do in the future.”
However, the husband of an MRC guard told the Herald Sun prison officers were aware there would be a riot on the eve of the smoking ban.
“At 8.30am my wife rang and said there was going to be a riot,’’ he said.
“She rang and said ‘if you hear about a riot, don’t worry, I’ll be fine’.’’
“My grievance is the prison authorities knew there was going to be a riot but authorised the release of prisoners out of their cells.’’
A source said the canteen began running out of cigarettes about a week ago, fuelling tensions at the prison.
“The crooks were at a flashpoint and the staff, who also can’t smoke, were getting testy,’’ he said.
“It’s been a tinderbox waiting for a match.’’
The MRC, which has 1000 beds, has 200 staff.
There have been several incidents at the MRC and Port Phillip Prison this year, one in which two guards were attacked and hospitalised.
Prison sources told the Herald Sun in February there was widespread concerns the smoking ban would spark riots.
Stocks of tobacco were also regularly being found in routine cell checks and inmates had been seen burying supplies in gardens ahead of the ban.
Prisoners who smoke were also reportedly bullying non-smoking inmates into buying the weekly quota of cigarettes to add to their supplies.
“This is just the start — all hell is going to break out come July when they are stopped from lighting up,” a prison source said at the time.
Nicotine patches will be offered to prisoners to satisfy their cravings, and 24-hour access will be given to the Quitline telephone support service.
The Ravenhall jail was also the scene of another wild riot in August 2012, when a prisoner was bashed amid a damage bill of $320,000.
The Metropolitan Remand Centre at Ravenhall is 25km west of the Melbourne CBD.
It is located next to the Western Freeway near Robinsons Rd.
The centre, opened in 2006, is a high-security remand facility operated by the Victorian Department of Justice.
Most of its inmates are waiting on the outcome of their court case.
Some have been sentenced but on appeal.
The centre has four general units each with 75 beds, a protection unit of 100 beds called Deakin, 200 beds in special units including for young prisoners, and a management unit of 13 beds.
The 100-bed protection unit is divided into three areas.
A new medium security prison is being built at Ravenhall opposite the remand centre, due for completion in 2017.