Open prisons to new ideas for all to benefit

By Bill Rowlings*, CEO of Civil Liberties Australia

Prisoners should undergo health, mental health and education level checks on entry for baseline measurements to check how rehabilitated they are when eventually released, Civil Liberties Australia proposes.

CLA’s novel approach to detention is contained in detailed proposals to the Queensland Productivity Commission (QPC) current major inquiry into prison reform.

“Prisons are meant to be all about rehabilitation,” CLA president Dr Kristine Klugman said.

“But nobody knows whether prisons improve people’s health and prospects, or just park prisoners in a netherworld where they go downhill while in jail, which ensures that half of them return to prison within two years of being released,” she said.

“At $107,000 a year for each prisoner, or about $300 a day each, taxpayers are forking out an awful lot to get no return on their investment. That’s more per person than it costs someone to stay at a luxury hotel for a year.

“The number of adult prisoners in Australia is rising at 4% a year. There were 43,000 at 30 June 2018. People on remand – in jail but not yet convicted – were up 7% over the previous year. Female prisoners were up 10%, ABS figures show.[1]

“We must find circuit breakers to eliminate the cycle of senselessness which is the life of the rapidly growing prison underclass developing in Australia. Many more women and Indigenous people are being added to its numbers every year,” she said.

Crime down, but number of prisoners way up

The QPC is analysing the state’s current and projected prisons on a cost and effectiveness basis.

“Crime’s down over the past 20 years, but imprisonment rates are up 44% in Queensland between 2012 and 2018,” Dr Klugman said.

“The QPC says the state will have to build about 5200 new prison cells in the next five years to cope with the rising rates of jailing people. It will cost the state about $6 billion.

“The same dilemma to the same proportions is facing every state and territory in Australia,” she said. “Prisons and prisoners are Australia’s major growth industry.

“For example, Victoria’s prison population is up 67% over the 10 years to 2016. In that period, female prisoners were up 75%.[2]

CLA proposes:

  • building new types of prisons for non-violent offenders;
  • educating and training guards and prisoners alike so “prison” can be based more on electronic technology rather than bricks and mortar;
  • upskilling prisoners, starting with basic life skills courses, but including TAFE and university education opportunities for long-term inmates;
  • ensuring prisoners contribute to local society – such as schools, disabled facilities and aged care centres – as they learn new skills, like cooking, carpentry, hairdressing, fishing, first aid, and car maintenance;
  • adopting the “Portugal” approach to drug crimes, so that minor drug-taking becomes a health issue, drastically reducing prison numbers;
  • developing an incentive/reward scheme for police stations and districts who demonstrate an improved ability to keep Indigenous people out of jail, rather than putting them before the court for minor offences; and
  • opening up prisons to media and research interviews, public interaction and open and transparent practices.

“Approaching the prisons problem from a financial viewpoint is a credit to the Queensland government,”Dr Klugman said.

“When taxpayers realise how much prisons and prisoners are costing them, the clamour of ‘law and order’ election campaigns will disappear.

It’s dumb to simply make citizens pay more tax

“It’s plain dumb for politicians to want more people in jail: the fewer in jail, the better for the community, so the politicians have to find solutions to reduce the financial burden on citizens, not glib new ways of sending taxes up.

“It will become a mark of irresponsibility for a candidate or party leader to bleat about new ‘law and order’ legislation when there are already thousands of existing laws and regulations putting too many people behind bars at too great a cost, which is rapidly rising, to society.

“As a by product of the changes we propose, society will end up with more humane prisons which potentially improve the future lives of prisoners, benefiting them and keeping them out of jail.

“There’s no reason why the vast majority of prisoners can’t learn new skills while assisting the community as they learn.”

Ends 190522

Note: The QPC inquiry Is due to hand down its report in August 2019.

* Bill Rowlings has been CEO of Civil Liberties Australia since 2003. He has written extensively on prison problems and reform over that period.

  1. https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/4517.0
  2. Denham Sadler, The Saturday Paper 6-12 April 2019 p9
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