Melbourne: Heavily-armed police quelled a riot involving up to 300 inmates at an Australian jail on Wednesday over the introduction of a smoking ban, with a handful of prisoners injured.
Melbourne’s Metropolitan Remand Centre remains in lockdown after the 15-hour disturbance when doors were smashed, fires lit and some inmates armed themselves with sticks and iron bars from the jail’s agricultural sheds.
Three prison staff received minor injuries and five inmates were taken to hospital, some with dog bites, after police moved in during the early hours of the morning, reportedly using tear gas.
“I am deeply relieved that no one was seriously injured,” Victoria state Police Minister Wade Noonan told reporters, adding that there had never been any danger to the public and prison perimeter fences were not breached.
“But I would like to make it absolutely clear the events were unacceptable to the government and unacceptable to the Victorian people. This criminal behaviour will not be tolerated.”
He said a full investigation would be launched and those responsible charged.
The riot was triggered by a smoking ban in Victorian prisons which came into effect on Wednesday, for which state Premier Daniel Andrews insisted there would be no rethink.
“The smoking ban will not be changed, we do not reward that sort of behaviour by making policy changes,” he said.
On its website, Corrections Victoria said from July 1 no one would be allowed to smoke anywhere on prison property and tobacco, pipes, lighters and matches would be considered contraband.
“Smoke-free prisons will provide a healthier and safer workplace for everybody, a safer prison system and a better quality of life for people who quit smoking,” it said.
Victoria Corrections Commissioner Jan Shuard added that “an enormous amount” of work had been done leading up to the ban, including offering nicotine replacement therapy and a quit programme.
But with large numbers of prisoners smokers, few were happy.
Brett Collins, a former prisoner and spokesman for Justice Action, an advocacy group targeting abuse of authority, called the ban “bullying” and “a denial of their rights”.
“People are just totally outraged... they have very little to lose,” he told national radio.
A similar ban is due to be enforced at prisons in New South Wales from August 10 and the state’s Corrective Services Commissioner Peter Severin asked Victorian prison authorities for an urgent briefing on the Melbourne riot.
“I need to know a lot more about what actually happened in Victoria and what led to the incident,” he said.