Today at 12:20 PM in Melbourne, an estimated 60 prisoners at the Metropolitan Remand Centre tore down an internal wall and started fires from plastic bins. Tweets from a Channel 7 helicopter observed rioting prisoners covering their heads in clothing and marauding the inner yards with what looked like homemade weapons. Within an hour this had escalated to include more than 300 prisoners, and apparently the riots were all because of cigarettes.
Beginning on Wednesday, every one of Victoria's 14 prisons will be smoke free. Around 84 percent of Victorian prisoners smoke, against only 12.6 in the general population, which is why Corrections Victoria approved a cigarette ban at the start of last year. Now, 18 months later, Corrections Commissioner Jan Shuard described prison staff as "very ready" for the change. Prisoners had been participating in programs to quit, while as The Age reported, a special menu of steak and seafood was on offer to mark the ban's inauguration.
When I arrived there seemed to be a lot happening inside, but not much outside. Amongst the media circus, there were 50 police cars, around 40 fire trucks, and a dozen ambulances. I could see smoke lofting over the center, to which a police officer remarked, "looks like they've found something else to burn." There was also a whole lot of barking from dogs waiting with a crowd of heavily armed riot officers. And then, after several prison employees were herded out of the way, the riot squad went in with tear gas.
According to a brief statement, given out by Victorian Corrections at the scene, parts of the prison were locked down, all staff were uninjured and accounted for, and all emergency services were at the scene. Radio station 3AW also reported that the destroyed internal fence had been designed to separate rival bike gangs.
By 5 PM it seemed the situation was coming under control. There were reports that most prisoners had surrendered. This was reiterated by a press conference hosted by Corrections Commissioner Jan Shuard, who admitted she couldn't recall a larger riot in Victorian history.
The last riot to occur at the Metropolitan Remand Centre was in August 2012. Five prisoners scaled an internal fence to throw rocks at prison guards and break security cameras, causing $320,000 worth of damage. All five inmates received further jail time last year, after spending around 23 hours per day locked in their cells awaiting trial.
Just before I left an unusual looking police truck arrived. I asked an officer what it was used for. He said he hadn't seen it since the Black Saturday bushfires. "It's filled with computers and communication services," he said. "We use it as a command center." To me, this signified they were preparing to be there for a while.
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