Conditions inside Canberra's prison have come under sharp criticism again after a disturbance on Tuesday night in which 27 prisoners armed themselves with broom handles and other implements, four fires were lit and firefighters needed officers with riot shield protection as they fought various blazes.
In what Corrective Services Commissioner Jon Peach described as a "difficult night", around 6.50pm a group of detainees in the north wing of the prison refused to be locked in their cells for the evening and began a demonstration and disturbance.
The incident went on for some three-and-a-half hours before a peaceful surrender was negotiated.
Police, which had a tactical team at the ready and a drone in the air over the prison observing events unfold, together with ACT Fire and Rescue crews equipped with breathing apparatus working on fire control, finally were stood down around 10.45pm.
Mr Peach, who has experienced in quelling major riots in other prisons he has managed in the UK, took pains to describe the incident at the Alexander Maconochie Centre as "not of a violent nature toward our staff ... more of a demonstration".
CCTV cameras were broken, mattresses set on fire and various sections of the north wing ransacked during the two-hour incident. CCTV cameras captured much of the fracas, and this footage will form part of the review.
Two cells were rendered uninhabitable due to fire and those inmates, together with a number of others, are being separated and rehoused elsewhere in the jail which will place even more pressure on the crowded accommodation levels.
The ACT Council of Social Service (ACTCOSS) said that the incident highlighted the need for reform in the prison system.
"We need to fix the prison," ACTCOSS chief executive officer Dr Emma Campbell said.
"We and and other community organisations have long been calling for major reform of the AMC.
"Earlier this year, the Commonwealth Productivity Commission highlighted ongoing issues of overcrowding, prisoners locked in cells for extended periods, relatively low participation of eligible prisoners in training programs and unacceptable levels of assaults.
"Too often detainees are unable to access productive education, work or rehabilitative supports. Programs must be culturally safe and supportive for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander detainees and gender-specific for women detainees."
The newly-installed Minister for Corrections, Mick Gentleman, who replaced Greens leader Shane Rattenbury in the trouble-plagued portfolio, said he was concerned about the incident and would be asking the independent Inspector of Correctional Services, Neil McAllister, to prepare a report.
Mr McAllister reports to the ACT Legislative Assembly, not directly to the minister. Late last year he tabled the first "Healthy Prison Review" and made 73 recommendations detailing a range of improvements.
Many have been unable to be addressed because of restrictions and procedural changes imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, in which it was feared that any outbreak behind bars, with inmates in such close proximity to each other, would create a "cruise ship"-type environment where the virus would spread rapidly.
Mr Peach said there was no aggression was shown to the staff on Tuesday night but admitted that this was "probably the most elevated incident I've seen in the ACT".
"But I would have to say this is not the most elevated incident for me, obviously," he added.
No-one was injured in Tuesday night's incident. No charges have yet been laid but police will investigate and interview those involved.
ACT Corrections would not go into the detail of what triggered the incident but deputy Liberal leader Guilia Jones said that guards had warned her that tension had been building up inside the prison for some time.
"There are a number of contributing factors but one of the key ones is the total lack of a meaningful day for most of the 400-plus prisoners in there," she said.
"There is an oval and a basketball court which are hardly used because there's not enough staff to monitor the detainees.
"But aside from that, we badly need to give these people something productive and worthwhile to do each day. The previous [Corrections] Minister said that he didn't want any jail industries competing with the marketplace but that's just rubbish. Taxpayers already pay for the jail and any money that's generated out there can offset that cost."