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Mental health unit 'too small, too late'


Louis Andrews

The Alexander Maconochie Centre.

The Alexander Maconochie Centre. Photo: Rohan Thomson

The former manager of the Alexander Maconochie Centre's crisis support unit says the government's promised secure mental health facility is too small and will come years too late.

Peter Marshall, in a letter to The Canberra Times published today, said the 15-bed centre would ''almost certainly be too small'' and should have opened at the same time as the prison.

He also warned that the centre - designed as the nation's first human rights- compliant prison - lacked the services to meet its obligations under the territory's rights laws.

Mr Marshall's letter was prompted by a recent article penned by senior Canberra prosecutor Shane Drumgold and Wednesday's sentencing of a mentally ill man on arson and harassment charges.

Jeremy Dash-Greentree received a 22-month sentence for setting fire to the front door of a government flat and bombarding a woman with harassing phone calls.

But the paranoid schizophrenic was not required to serve more time in jail after being locked up for more than 18 months.

Mr Marshall, who managed the crisis support unit from its opening until September, wrote that he was ''genuinely delighted'' Mr Dash-Greentree had been released from prison after time spent ''mainly in the crisis support unit which was designed for extremely short stays''.

''There are few more compelling case studies for a secure mental health unit than his experience,'' he wrote. ''That unit, which should have opened at the same time as the Alexander Maconochie Centre, is still years away and, on present plans, will almost certainly be built too small, so that situations like Dash-Greentree's will continue to arise.

''My heart also goes out to his main victim, and I hope she is receiving the support that she also needs at this time.''

The government last year funded the last stages of the design work after a report highlighted the need for a 15-bed centre.

The project has been on the cards for several years, but progress has been hamstrung by cost-blowouts and questions about the demand.

The facility is now expected to be handed over to the government by March 2016, at a cost of almost $24.6million.

The price-tag has fluctuated over the years: first from $11 million, blowing out to $14 million and then being put on hold in 2011 after costs reached $30 million.

Mr Marshall also responded to Mr Drumgold's argument, in Wednesday's Canberra Times, that the Human Rights Act was being used to put defendants ahead of victims.

The prosecutor said the legislation made prison ''much less of a deterrent today, as regular human rights reviews try to make it as close to not being in prison as possible''.

But Mr Marshall said the lack of services on both sides of prison walls left the prison ''unable to comply even with those parts of the act specific to it, such as segregating unconvicted and convicted prisoners''.

He said the proportion of detainees on remand at the prison awaiting trial - one-in-three, and the worst in the nation - was also reason to ''moderate the destructive effect of being incarcerated''.

''Drumgold's office bears some responsibility for the duration of time people spend on remand in custody in the ACT, as do indecisive judicial officers and defence teams,'' Mr Marshall said.


  • Gosh its unlike this Government to lack services to meet its obligations.

    Martin Says
    Date and time
    January 14, 2013, 9:53AM
    • I would like to see the government reopen large mental health facilities like Kenmore. It worries me the amount of mental ill people I see walking around town, They would be better off in a large purpose built complex to deal with mental health issues, Where patients can be treated and looked after and keeped out of trouble

      Date and time
      January 14, 2013, 1:24PM
      • Just from my experience in ACT mental health facilities, I don't think that there would be much difference between the two. ACT mental health is under the control of just two or three Doctors who have certain views on what in fact a mental illness is. For example if there isn't a claim of auditory hallucinations, then they aren't needing any mental health care and will not be needing admission to any mental health facility.This example and heaps more just as ridiculous have , and do happen constantly. What is more frustrating is that the powers that be have nursing staff carry out the preliminary assessments too. They are like gate keepers. Its really quite scary. I have heard of even people having to travel interstate to be able to get medicated because certain meds have been banned by the new young order of amateurs that medicalise anything and everything. And because they can, probably don't see how it affects people with mental health conditions. ACT is a very rich city with little to complain about but this is one that is quite worrying. I won't even bother going into the crisis team's short comings as its invariably ineffective. It would be a more productive call centre.

        Date and time
        January 14, 2013, 8:15PM
        • Breaking News

          There are reports coming out of Canberra of a mass break-in to the Capital's prison - the Alexander Maconochie Centre. Thousands of stressed-out, over-taxed, justice-deprived Canberrans have decided "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em".

          "I can't wait to use the pool and gym" said Narrabundah mother of two, Jacqui de la Renta (not her real name) "particularly on these stinking hot days. I used to take the kids to the pool in Civic but some low life stole my car.".

          Public servant Peter Coogan (not his real name) said he was looking forward to getting some attention. "I'm a bit embarrassed about it" Pete said sheepishly "but you know, people falling all over you all the time. Helping you with your life and all. On the outside no one gives a fig about you. I intend to resist release. Probably go to Court. Always wanted to go to Court but could never afford it".

          As at 10.44 p.m the Authorities had regained control, setting up roadblocks preventing any more break-ins. Human Rights lawyers said they will challenge the roadblocks in the ACT Supreme Court. Last words on the crisis came from weary Police Chief, Bill Buchanan (not his real name): "peculiar place, Canberra, bloody peculiar".

          Paul Neri
          Date and time
          January 14, 2013, 10:54PM
          Comments are now closed

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