Australian Prisons are Failing to Serve the Interests of Society

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Prison walls

Unlike correctional centres in Scandinavian countries such as Norway and Denmark, Australian prisons have never been known for successfully rehabilitating inmates.

While a commitment to rehabilitation is written into the mission statements of all Australian prisons, the reality is many do not achieve good outcomes in terms of reducing reoffending  through education, vocational training, support and programs designed to address any underlying issues.

High recidivism rates

Indeed, recidivism (reoffending) rates are high across all states and territories in Australia. According to recent figures compiled by the Productivity Commission,  more than half (53.1%) of Australia’s prison population are returning to jail within two years of release. 

What’s more, recidivism is expensive – with those who reoffending accounting for more than half of the annual expenditure on prisons.

More than half of prisoners re-offend

While it might be argued that rehabilitation will always be a bit “hit and miss” because you can’t help people who don’t want to help themselves, more can be done within correctional facilities to address the root causes that make people turn to a life of crime. 

Just as importantly, support services for those who’ve completed a sentence need to be stretched well beyond the high wire fences.

Figures also show that about 50 percent of people leaving prison end up homeless, which of course, reduces their ability to fully integrate into ‘normal society’. And then there’s the stigma of a criminal record. 

The general public is not always welcoming, open-minded and forgiving, even when someone has paid their dues to society and truly wants a fresh start. 

Is prison the answer for non-violent offenders? 

Much of this has to do with stereotypes, despite the fact that more than a third of people (38%) who have spent time behind bars were sentenced for non-violent offences. 

This is one area where a wider range of alternative sentencing options could play an important role in reducing re-offending because according to figures published by the Institute of Public Affairs one third of convicted prisoners in 2021-22 received a prison sentence of less than six months. 

More than 65 percent of these short sentences are served by non-violent offenders. Yet, it is exactly these short and frequent sentences that tend to be associated with high recidivism rates. 

Some research suggests that because they are highly disruptive, they can make it very difficult for people to get their lives back on track. 

Why locking up children also doesn’t work 

It’s long been debated that juvenile re-offending is where governments need to focus. 

Australia has one of the highest juvenile reoffending rates in the world with 85 per cent of young people returning to detention within 12 months and a third returning within 6 months, and yet government policies generally speaking are not focused on reducing these numbers, they continue to place an over-reliance on incarceration. 

As an example, in the past 18 months or so, with media headlines dominated by “youth crime gangs terrorizing communities” in Queensland, the government response was typical of successive previous governments – to get even “tougher on crime”, changing a number of laws, including laws which make it harder for offenders to get bail – decisions which fly in the face of increasing evidence which shows that locking up youths is not working as a deterrent to crime. 

As the current facilities became more and more crowded as a result of these policies, the  Queensland Government made the extraordinary decision to suspended its own human rights laws so that it could, when necessary, lock children up with adult offenders in police holding cells.

This is typical of the kind of decisions that other state and territory governments make, further traumatising these young people at the expense of the taxpayer. We know what follows  is more often than not, a cycle of “commiting crimes and doing time” which can last well into adulthood, if not for life. 

In fact, in April last year statistics showed that in Queensland the number of actual ‘unique’ offenders (juvenile and adult) was failing, but the crime rate overall was increasing. Essentially, fewer people were committing multiple crimes. 

Yes, crime needs to be punished. But for anyone who is not a hardened criminal, prison is more than a punishment  – it can be an unsafe, unsanitary environment, inhabited by unstable inmates who can be volatile and foreboding, run by security personnel who sometimes operate as thugs, rather than custodians. Human Rights abuses are well documented.

It’s also well documented that our juvenile detention centres in particular, are dirty and dilapidated. Youths are not  being fed properly and are often subjected to isolation for extended periods of time, which only serves to ignite anger, depression, anxiety and a range of anti-social behaviours. 

Living in ‘survival mode’ long term makes it even more difficult to operate  in ‘normal’ social conditions when the time comes. 

Governments just keep spending 

Of course, the answer is not simple and we need to consider a number of factors.  But ignoring the problem, and simply spending money building more facilities to house an ever-growing prison population just doesn’t really add up as a sensible economically sustainable long-term solution. 

As a nation we spent $6 billion last year on prison construction and maintenance – an increase of $2 billion over the past five years.

The simple fact of the matter is that incarceration has proven itself in so many ways to be the root cause of the problem. Research undertaken over a number of years presents a changing picture of crime, why people commit crimes as well as the nature of offending and re-offending, and yet we’re still using a system that evolved from the days Australia was a penal colony.  

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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