Canberra's Aboriginal health service wants appropriate accommodation for female prisoners and the separation of remandees from sentenced prisoners to be prioritised over building a low security annexe to the Symonston prison.
The ACT budget recently allocated $35 million for the construction of the 80-bed low security facility, which will be located outside the current double-walled maximum security fence at the Alexander Maconochie Centre.
Designs for the centre's cottage-style accommodation are being finalised, with construction expected to start late this year or in early 2020.
In its submission to the inspector of prisons, the Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Service urged the ACT government to address the overcrowding issue in Canberra's jail so as to reduce the risk to female inmates.
"As the Inspector of Corrections has already found, the overcrowding [at the jail] has resulted in women detainees, a majority of whom are Aboriginal, being accommodated inappropriately with the consequence of being at risk of re-traumatisation," the Winnunga submission stated.
"There is almost certainly a correlation between the chronic overcrowding experienced at the [prison], the appropriateness of the accommodation and the level of tension and violence at the prison."
Winnunga's is one of many submissions which are being examined by the ACT Inspector of Correctional Services, Neil McAllister, ahead of his first "healthy prisons review".
The "healthy prison" test was devised by the World Health Organisation and is used to independently assess prison environments.
The review team will measure the Canberra prison's performance against four key criteria: safety, respect, purposeful activity and rehabilitation, and release planning.
The team will visit the prison as part of its assessment process and provide an independent report to the ACT Assembly later this year.
Winnunga's submission makes 24 recommendations and reiterates the need for detainees on remand to be separated from sentenced prisoners.
The separation of remandees was part of the prison's original design intent, however the increasing number of prisoners entering the jail and the double-bunking of prisoners inside each cell has made this unworkable.
The jail is now operating at or near its maximum operational capacity of 511 beds.
Equally troubling for the criminal justice system generally is that the ACT has Australia's worst rate of Aboriginal recidivism. A recent snapshot found that a quarter of the prison's intake was made up of Indigenous people.
This data is supported by a recent statistical survey which found Canberra's jail had 94 male Indigenous detainees and 18 female. Of these Indigenous prisoners, 99 had been previously incarcerated.
In a statement tabled in the ACT Assembly on Thursday, Corrections Minister Shane Rattenbury acknowledged the "significant proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander detainees" at the jail and said that steps were being taken to address the issue.
"I wish to assure the Assembly and the community that the ACT government is committed to addressing elements of the criminal justice system that disproportionally impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people," he said.
In November 2017, population pressures within the prison forced female detainees to be relocated from the cottages, which were designed for their requirements, to the 57-bed "special care centre" for prisoners who had to be kept under observation, which provided women with little or no privacy and prevented them from accessing open, grassed areas.
Now women prisoners have been moved again to a central block of the main prison where they can see and hear the men.
The ACT government is committed to addressing elements of the criminal justice system that disproportionally impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.Corrections Minister Shane Rattenbury
For women who have been attacked and traumatised by violent men - some of whom share the same jail - it's a far cry from the prison's "best practice" design intent.
"ACT Corrective Services acknowledge that the use of the [centre] for female detainees is not ideal, but at the time of the relocation this was the only viable option available," Mr Rattenbury said.
The prison is currently developing a new framework for female prisoners "in order to optimise the chances of successful rehabilitation and reintegration into the community post release".
ACT Corrections said female offenders "often have specific needs that differ from male offenders".
"It is important these specific needs are considered when accommodating and providing educational, training and rehabilitation programs," it said.
Remandees have also been dealt a poor hand by the crowded state of the prison and the single, inflexible maximum security setting.
Mr Rattenbury also acknowledged the design of the prison and the population pressures did not allow for the complete separation of detainees and sentenced prisoners, which was part of the jail's original policy intent.
He also said a remand policy would be introduced by the end of June which recognises that remand detainees should be "subject to fewer restrictions than sentenced detainees" and have fewer visitor restrictions.