An indigenous male prisoner with mental health issues is in Canberra Hospital's intensive care unit after a self-harm incident inside the maximum security jail.
The prisoner is the same man who was targeted by prison guards in a 2018 racist attack which sent ACT Corrective Services into damage control mode, triggered a hearing in the civil and administrative tribunal, and elicited an apology from the service's commissioner.
In that previous incident, the inmate had been the subject of a a game of "hangman" played on a whiteboard by prison staff within a staff-only area of the Alexander Maconochie Centre.
In responding to that incident, the Minister for Corrective Services, Shane Rattenbury, said that he was personally appalled and described it as "deeply regrettable and frankly offensive".
The most recent incident is understood to have been provoked by the prisoner being unable to access, or afford, a tobacco allowance.
Detainees unable to access external sources of money through a trust account rely on wages from employment within the prison or an unemployment wage of just $15 per week, according to a recent report by the ACT prisons inspectorate.
ACT and WA prisons are the only systems in Australia which permit smoking by inmates.
Julie Tongs, the head of the Winnunga Nimmityjah Health Service which provides health support to indigenous inmates at Canberra's prison, said she was advised the patient is now "physically okay" but said this incident would not have happened if the man was in a secure mental health facility, instead of behind bars.
"I'm advised that the key reason why this client won't be transferred [to Dhulwa, the ACT's secure mental health unit] is because of a smoking issue; because the mental health unit is non-smoking," Ms Tongs said.
"This is ridiculous. If this is the key issue then why isn't there a program put in place to help him manage his withdrawal?
"We're dealing here with a very vulnerable person's physical and mental well-being. The ACT has a facility which was set up for this purpose.
"Prison guards are not mental health workers. They shouldn't be put in a situation where they have to manage a person with an acute mental health condition."
However, while acknowledging that cigarette smoking "can be an issue for detainees", Canberra Health Services refuted that a detainee's smoking habit would have a role in their clinical decision making.
Ms Tongs said she had written to the Corrections Minister restating her firm view that this man "should not go back behind bars".
In a response to questions posed by Liberals MLA Giulia Jones, the Minister acknowledged the prisoner had "very complex needs" and his case was receiving attention from a range of specialists, including from NSW.
He said he was being guided by clinical experts on the best outcome in this case and was advised that "there is no clinical indication supporting such an admission [to Dhulwa] at this time".