Hazel Buchanan

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What About When They Come Out?

Posted by Hazel Buchanan on 31 May, 2016 at 4:05

With the election into its fourth week, the focus continues to be the state of the economy and which party is touting the most reckless ‘Spending versus Revenue’ plan. But did you know that it costs a billion dollars a year to run the correctional facilities in New South Wales alone? And that’s before escalating capital expenditure. Actually, it's a billion dollars and counting, given that the state’s prison population grew a staggering fourteen percent during 2015. Those two figures alone should surely be enough to make our politicians question what exactly is being achieved. Shouldn’t we, as ordinary citizens, also be asking what our tax dollars are paying for? At the very least, wouldn't you like to know whether you are getting value for money?

In order to measure the system’s success, there first has be a statement of intent: a declaration of the underlying justification for the sanction of imprisonment. In other words, what is our purpose in locking people up? Are we sending people to prison as punishment or for punishment - how much do we intend them to suffer? And what do we expect the outcome to be? Do we as a society have any genuine desire to rehabilitate offenders or are we merely seeking vengeance?

If the goal were retribution pure and simple, the current system could arguably be said to be meeting its aim. Despite the claims that are spuriously made from time-to-time likening modern prisons to motels and holiday camps, the truth is that, for the vast majority of people, prison is a punishing place to be. But even theories of retributive justice require that the punishment ‘fit’ the crime. Lawmakers go to some lengths to estimate the seriousness of the harm caused by a particular offence, and then attempt to translate that into a ‘fitting’ sentence. In reality, of course, the resulting level of injury from a crime varies according to the victim. Equally, the full impact of the punishment imposed may correlate far more closely to the offender’s own innate characteristics than it does to the nature and seriousness of the crime they were convicted of.

Does that matter, though? If imprisonment is all about punishment, does society care if some convicted criminals are effectively dealt with more harshly than they ‘deserve’? The answer would surely have to be a resounding ‘No’. But the flip-side tells a different story. The outrage commonly expressed when an offender is perceived to be ‘getting off lightly’ demonstrates that some concept of fairness is important after all. But where do we stand on rehabilitation? The very title ‘Corrective Services’ implies that deterrence and rehabilitation are intended to be part of the system. Indeed, the official guidelines spell it out. Custodial correctional services apparently exist ‘to assist the rehabilitation of prisoners and offenders by providing opportunities…to reduce offending behaviour’. The same document states that prisoners should be ‘Actively engaged to make positive behaviour change (inclusive of accessing intervention programmes, education, vocational education and work opportunities) with the aims of preparing them for their participation in and return to the community, as well as reducing re-offending behaviour’.

Fact or fantasy? The statistics speak for themselves. Sixty percent of those currently being held in Australian prisons have been locked up before. And in New South Wales, nearly half of all adult prisoners released are back inside within two years. On these measures alone, it is clear that the system is dramatically failing, the implication being that for a significant proportion of people, sending them to prison simply doesn’t work. They are neither being rehabilitated nor deterred.

The knee-jerk reaction of politicians, when faced with unpalatable crime rates or a perceived increase in lawlessness, is to seek to lock more people up for lesser offences and a longer stretch of time. That is certainly what has been happening in Australia for years, despite the studies that show how ineffective it is. The result of flying in the face of the research is the ever-increasing problem of overcrowding in our prisons. Governments are spending a fortune, with no end to the funding increases in sight. And when three men are forced to share a cell designed for one, is it really any wonder that riots break out?

So what about these ‘programmes’, and the ‘positive behaviour change’ that is supposed to be being wrought? Many of the inmates of our jails are there on remand. As remand prisoners, they have no access to rehabilitation programmes and are highly unlikely to be given the opportunity to work. Convicted inmates are expected to work, although there are rarely enough jobs to go around. The majority of tasks are menial and require little or no training. Rehabilitation programmes are available only to inmates serving sentences of six months or more. The waiting lists for these programmes in most Correctional Centres are so long that it is not uncommon for an offender to have finished their sentence or to have been transferred to another facility by the time their name comes up.

There is just so much potential, given the general population of our prisons, to improve the outcomes not only for a lot of very disadvantaged people but also for the communities they are eventually going to rejoin. It is hard to imagine finding a better opportunity to address a whole range of social issues - drug and alcohol dependency, lack of education and training, poor nutrition and dental health, inadequate life skills, a diversity of mental illnesses, rock-bottom self-esteem. Instead of paying inmates a pittance to fix Qantas headsets, why isn’t more emphasis placed on helping them find gainful employment after their release? Why is the chance to get involved in a trade open to so few? Why is the funding so limited for improving inmates' life skills and teaching them to read. Why would you lock anyone up only to release them back into the community hardened, perhaps brutalized; quite possibly infected with Hepatitis C; maybe even HIV positive; and in possession of a greater criminal skill set than when they went in?


Where is the sense in that? Where is the economic value? Let alone the morality.

Categories: Politics

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