MAITLAND CORRECTIONAL CENTRE ESCAPE ATTEMPT
Mr NEILLY: My question without notice is directed to the Minister for Corrective Services, and Minister for Emergency Services. What information can the Minister give about the foiled escape of four inmates from Maitland Correctional Centre last weekend?
Mr DEBUS: At 12.45 p.m. on Saturday two of the State’s most notorious prisoners - drug boss George Savvas and serial killer Ivan Milat - planned to escape from Maitland gaol. It was a desperate plan by two desperate men. That escape was doomed to fail.
Mr SPEAKER: Order! I call the Minister for Local Government to order.
Mr DEBUS: With the assistance of two other inmates, these men thought they would be able to scale an eight-metre wall which bristles with razor wire, guard wire and camera and microwave surveillance. They thought they could get through gates overlooked by guard towers and staffed by officers armed with Ruger rifles. What Milat and Savvas and their co-conspirators did not know was that their plan had been detected weeks before.
Mr Phillips: Why did you let them go so long?
Mr DEBUS: Just wait and you will find out. If these men had gone ahead with their reckless attempt they would have come face to face with a squad of heavily armed officers from the hostage response group of the Department of Corrective Services and members of the police State protection group, major incident group and other police. Hidden in the reception room, unknown to the inmates, a unit of armed men lay in wait, rather than the single guard the prisoners expected. High in the tower above was hidden a further squad of marksmen.
Mr SPEAKER: Order! I remind the honourable member for Ermington that he is on three calls to order.
Mr DEBUS: In July last year I introduced a special category for maximum security prisoners: extreme high risk. Savvas and Milat were in that category. This hard-line, high-tech security regime has changed the lives of a hard core of the State’s most dangerous men.
Mr SPEAKER: Order! I call the honourable member for Northcott to order for the third time.
Mr DEBUS: They are forced to move from prison to prison. Their phone calls, mail and visits are closely monitored. Their visitors must undergo criminal record checks and submit to visitor identification, which includes digital imaging. Milat and Savvas clearly did not understand just how effective the new regime is. As they finessed their plans, prison authorities, through attentive surveillance, were one step ahead of them all the way. In the weeks prior to the escape bid authorities continued to gather vital information. In April the Independent Commission Against Corruption was provided with reliable information regarding the escape plan. In fact it had been monitoring Savvas and his underworld confederates for some months. The Department of Corrective Services was immediately notified and a joint operation commenced. When it was certain that the planned escape was to go ahead, New South Wales police were advised and joined the operation. A sting operation, which was codenamed Bengal, came into being. It was designed not only to smash the escape, but also the outside ring of accomplices.
The Deputy Leader of the Opposition should pay attention to this; it answers his silly question. It was in no-one’s interest to simply separate Milat and Savvas. It would not protect the long-term safety of staff and the community to drive Milat and Savvas underground, with their external support networks intact ready to form again, and plan again, in three, six or 12 months when the heat was off. However, all three agencies agreed that Operation Bengal would only proceed if the safety of prison staff and the security of the inmates could be guaranteed. That guarantee - and the honourable member for Lane Cove should pay special attention to this - was subject to daily review during the life of the investigation. On Saturday afternoon officers involved with Operation Bengal moved in on the inmates. They were interviewed by ICAC officers. In the meantime, the highest priority of prison authorities was to ensure that the conspirators were securely held.
Mr SPEAKER: Order! I call the honourable member for Wakehurst to order for the second time.
Mr DEBUS: Ivan Milat was subject to intensive interviews. He was then heavily shackled before being transported under heavy guard to a
segregation unit in Long Bay gaol. Savvas’ subsequent suicide is now the subject of a coronial inquiry. The Coroner attended the gaol on Sunday morning, and that inquiry, of course, somewhat curtails the information I can provide to the House.
Mr SPEAKER: Order! I call the honourable member for Lane Cove to order.
Mr DEBUS: However, Savvas was not assessed as a suicide risk by experienced prison staff. Because of that he was placed in Maitland gaol’s special segregation unit. That unit is subject to 24-hour guard by highly trained officers; they patrol outside the unit continuously. Prisoners are locked in cells which, to all intents and purposes, are steel cages. They have no access to the unit itself or to other inmates; it is a prison within a prison. I have been sorely distressed by the error-prone performance of the honourable member for Lane Cove in respect of this matter over the weekend. No doubt to the delight of the Leader of the Opposition, the community has already passed judgment on the heartfelt concern of the honourable member for Lane Cove for George Savvas. This morning the agencies involved have confirmed to me that a massive investigation is continuing. The tentacles of this matter extend into the underworld community. I will not jeopardise the investigation by disclosing the details of the operation now.
Mr SPEAKER: Order! I call the honourable member for Lane Cove to order for the second time.
Mr DEBUS: Part of the ongoing investigations will canvass why this desperate attempt was called off at the last moment. Let me assure the House that the only people who were in danger during this sorry saga were Ivan Milat and George Savvas. The job of a prison officer is difficult and often dangerous. Prison officers secure our prisons and protect the community. On Saturday, 17 May, the security of the New South Wales prison system was tested. The men and women who cope daily with the heavy responsibility of protecting the community had the question put to them - and they had the answer.